It has been my particular concern that religious conservatives — the base of Trump’s political base — regard a leader without character as the answer to a prayer. For some, this makes sense. The goal of their advocacy is really Christian supremacy. Instead of seeking the good of the whole, this type of political engagement seeks a privileged place for certain sectarian beliefs. Privileged legal status. Privileged White House access.
Those who seek the unconstitutionally ambitious goal of a “Christian America” turn out to be quite easily appeased. A few scraps from the political table — some empty words about the Johnson Amendment, some overbroad criticism of Islam, some disparagement of transgender and gay rights — seem more than enough to justify Trump’s status as political savior. “He has been the most faith-friendly president ever,” according to Jerry Falwell Jr.
I know my critique is complicated by the fact that most conservatives (myself included) are pleased with a specific element of Trump’s agenda — the appointment of judges tethered to the words of the Constitution. This is not a minor thing. But the words of the Constitution itself are starkly at odds with a belief in Christian supremacy. And so respect for that document can be located only within a different and better theory of Christian social engagement.
In most of Europe (and Latin America), an alternative would be obvious: a movement known as “Christian democracy.” This approach emerged under mainly Catholic influence in the 19th century. It combined center-right views on most social issues with center-left approaches to economic justice based on solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a Christian Democrat. In the United States, compassionate conservatives might be placed in this ideological space. So would pro-life Democrats such as the late governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
If you look at the Democracy Fund’s chart of the ideological distribution of U.S. voters, there are a significant number who fall into the quadrant of socially conservative and economically liberal — far more than are found in the libertarian quadrant of socially liberal and economically conservative.
Yet there has never been the (more pluralistic) U.S. equivalent of a Christian Democratic party. Why is that? At the most basic political level, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out to me, there is no socially conservative and economically interventionist party because we don’t have a parliamentary system. A country with multiple viable parties would probably find some home for this ideological hybrid.
But this begs the question of why neither of the major parties in the United States has consistently represented this viewpoint. It probably has much to do with the history of Catholicism in America. In 1800, there were perhaps 40,000 Catholics in the country. A century later, mainly as a result of mass migration, there were about 14 million. The Democratic Party welcomed this immigrant influx, providing patronage opportunities in large cities. Following the Civil War, Republicans turned generally anti-Catholic, leaving the GOP dominated by white Protestants who didn’t take well to German, Irish and Italian migrants and their strange, supposedly anti-democratic religion. Bloody riots ensued.
“The Democratic Party of the New Deal and the mid-20th century was a compatible home offering economic progress and a safety net without undermining basic institutions,” says John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. In the 1970s, Democrats such as Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden had pro-life records. But this changed quickly and dramatically as the Democratic Party become more monolithically pro-choice.
When Catholics emerged as a major force in Republican circles — with thinkers such as William F. Buckley Jr. — it was through the instrument of the conservative movement. And these Catholics were influenced more by libertarianism than Catholic social theory.
Pro-life Democrats such as Carr, and Protestants influenced by Catholic social thought like me, and Jewish, Mormon and non-religious people who view social solidarity as a central commitment have been left homeless. “This is the missing option in American politics,” Carr told me.
American politics will be improved and humanized when some party gives this solidarity movement — rather than Christian supremacy — a comfortable political home.