The US Bishops Criticized Obama More than Trump, and More Often by Name

Photo by Stephen Mayes on Unsplash

Sabrina Danielsen, Emily Burke, and Millennial writer Dan DiLeo write:

Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese observes that since inauguration day, U.S. bishops’ conference press releases about Biden’s policies have been notably positive. However, our research about the disparities in how the bishops’ conference publicly discussed Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama leads us to anticipate that church leaders may be more overtly critical and less overtly praising of Biden moving forward.

We suspect this will be the case out of the conference’s desire to preserve an informal alliance with the Republican Party especially based on shared legislative priorities and strategies around abortion, religious freedom, and same-sex marriage. If this occurs, it is likely to damage the relationship between the bishops’ conference and Biden and prevent fruitful collaboration on pressing issues.

Our research began after a series of viral tweets in 2019 claimed a bias in how the conference’s press releases criticized Trump and Obama. The tweets alleged the bishops’ conference was more likely to criticize Obama by name, whereas criticisms of Trump referred vaguely to “the administration” or “the federal government.”

We set out to test these claims in a more comprehensive, systematic and nuanced way, looking both at statements by individual bishops at the diocesan level as well as statements from the body of bishops….

The U.S. bishops’ conference was less willing to criticize Trump by name than Obama by name, it was less likely to praise Obama by name than Trump by name, and it had a higher percentage of unnamed criticism for Trump than Obama.

According to our research of USCCB statements:

    • 17% of sentences that criticized Trump did so by name while 36% of sentences that criticized Obama named him.
    • 15% of sentences praised Obama did so by name while 31% of sentences that praised Trump named him.
    • And 56% of sentences that criticized Obama did not do so by name while 80% of sentences that criticized Trump did not do so by name.

The U.S. bishops’ shift toward the Republican Party can also be attributed to several related dynamics: shared prioritization of abortion as the “preeminent” social problem and a corresponding judiciary-focused strategy to address this issue; “the rise of neoconservative Catholics” that current USCCB staff member Todd Scriber recognizes in A Partisan Church and who shape Catholic discourse; wealthy political conservatives who support bishops’ activities and advocate a “uniquely American version of Catholicism;” the influence of organizations like the Knights of Columbus that fund the bishops’ conference along with politically conservative initiatives; the increasing political partisanship of conservative Catholic media like EWTN that provide platforms for “neoconservative Catholics” and has been described as having become the ” ‘Fox News’ of religious broadcasting;” and increasing numbers of U.S. bishops’ conference staff coming from conservative colleges and institutions, as John Gehring — himself a former USCCB staffer — describes in The Francis Effect.

The idea that the U.S. bishops’ conference distanced their criticism of Trump compared to Obama to preserve an alliance with the Republican Party is further supported by our research into the most common topics addressed in the bishops’ sentences of praise and criticism.