Will the Trump Era Lead to the Rise and Triumph of Illiberal Catholic Conservatism? Don’t Count On It

Over at First Things, a manifesto was recently published that proclaimed that the old “conservative consensus” was dead and that space has been created by Donald Trump’s victory for a better form of conservatism.  The authors of the manifesto are right about the demise of the old conservative consensus; there are many studies and public opinion polls that demonstrate that the political right in the United States now embraces many of the policy positions of President Donald Trump.  However, while they are right about this change in the values of this newly emerging conservatism in the United States they—surprisingly and rather disturbingly—appear to believe these changes may very well be positive!

On the matter of nationalism, the manifesto works hard to blend Trumpian ideals with the aims of a certain illiberal conservative Catholic political mindset. Ultimately, this approach is morally objectionable and stands in conflict with Catholic social teaching.  Meanwhile, their assumptions about Trump’s policies or the space he has created through his election are disconnected from reality. President Trump’s administration is not a true ally of Catholics—neither those with a reasonable understanding of Catholic social teaching nor even those trying to create a more reactionary alternative understanding.

In the manifesto, the signatories praise what they call the “new nationalism” that opposes “open borders.” They maintain that Americans ought to show allegiance and devotion to Americans above all others. There is a palpable anti-immigrant mentality behind these appeals and the simplistic dualities they set up. Their nationalistic desires have certainly been aided by the rise of Trump’s nationalism.

Of course, it flies in the face of the Church’s commitment to global and international solidarity and institutions. And it comes at a time when US Bishops from across the political spectrum have acted in unison against Trump’s xenophobic, grossly immoral immigration policies. The Trumpian pseudo-Catholic conservatism of these “new nationalists” (who do not signify any way they are different from the other ‘America First’ nationalists of today or last century) stands in opposition to the Christian call to universal brotherhood and sisterhood.  The social teachings of the Catholic Church teach us that governance, citizenship, and political life should always be directed toward the common good. We are obligated to put the common good above our selfish interests and stand with the most vulnerable in society because of our principle of solidarity.  As Catholics, we have an obligation towards the poor, the vulnerable, the disabled, and religious and ethnic minorities. And we have a responsibility to welcome the stranger, including vulnerable migrants who are fleeing abject poverty and violence.

Catholic social teaching emphasizes the importance of strong community. Solidarity is the name we give for what weaves us together in community.  This community, however, does not stop at the borders.  We are not defined by where we were born or where we live—the principle of solidarity transcends boundaries. As Saint Pope John Paul II wrote: “We are all one family in the world” (Sollicitudo rei socialis).  Pope Emeritus Benedict also argued that people must go beyond seeing people in other countries as mere neighbors—that we must be united in fraternity. This is not the globalism of elites on private jets but the globalism of a religion that is catholic (universal). And the Church’s teaching is not optional, something to grab or ignore in line at the cafeteria.

Yet the authors of the manifesto clearly reject the call to solidarity and concern for the global common good.  They embrace a worldview where only the people who live within our politically-drawn boundaries are part of our extended family.  They see the international community as dangerous to the American way of life. The pope speaks from the heart of the faith when he encourages us to build bridges instead of walls, but they want walls. The negative reference to multiculturalism may point to a Steve Bannon-style culture warrior stance of opposing “the other” because they might destroy the fabric of the American way of life.

Beyond this clear rejection of Catholic teaching, it is not clear why they think many of the other ideals they advocate can be better served in this new Trump Era than by past conservatives. Will President Trump’s administration produce a conservatism with a much greater commitment to defending human dignity? Do Trump’s policies really help American workers who have been neglected, helping to foster a conservatism focused on such folks?  They also desire a conservatism that challenges “the soulless society of individual affluence” and believe that:

Our society must not prioritize the needs of the childless, the healthy, and the intellectually competitive. Our policy must accommodate the messy demands of authentic human attachments: family, faith, and the political community. We welcome allies who oppose dehumanizing attempts at “liberation” such as pornography, “designer babies,” wombs for rent, and the severing of the link between sex and gender.

Does that sound like the conservatism arising from Trump’s victory? Trump is obsessed with money and power. He has mocked those with disabilities. He tried to strip tens of millions of Americans of their health insurance.

Is he strengthening our political community? He has downplayed Russia’s repeated attacks on American democracy and backed voter suppression efforts. Is he a friend of religion? The Trump administration is definitely no friend to religious freedom or diverse political communities.  As a candidate, and as President, he called for a Muslim Ban.  He raised the specter of a Muslim registry. He has proposed gross violations of religious liberty for religious minorities by using the power of the United States government to close down mosques and places of worship that he deems “un-American.”

How about opposing pornography and the culture that makes it so popular? I’m not sure how a man who is caught on tape admitting to sexual assault, who dehumanizes women by publicly rating them on a 1-10 hotness scale, and has had affairs with porn stars can be seen as an ally of people who want to eradicate pornography. They claim to “reject attempts to compromise on human dignity.” It is not clear how Trump’s presidency will help conservatism be more focused on promoting human dignity—assuming that one regards women as human beings with dignity.

Is Trump really turning away from investors and “job creators” and making it easier to create a conservatism that benefits workers? He has passed regressive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the largest corporations, while undoing critical economic regulations and safeguards. These policies are designed to help those at the very top while abandoning normal American workers, the vulnerable, and the needy. His administration has done everything it could to empower corporate greed and exacerbate inequality.

Beyond this inability to explain how the Trump administration is creating space for the various principles they favor (besides their nationalism), an even greater failure may be their inability to recognize that the election of Donald Trump and his administration’s corruption and incompetence are a clear distress signal.  The election of President Trump should signal to all political observers that there is dysfunction at the heart of American politics. The American political system is spiraling downward not turning a corner.

The election of Donald Trump was an attempted firebombing of the American political system by those who felt that today’s diverse, multicultural, and globalized world is hostile to their preferred way of life—one tainted by sexism, racism, and xenophobia (not merely economic anxiety). This is not the time to rejoice at the possibilities of how conservative Catholics can use the Trumpian conservative movement to advance their causes; this is the time for deep introspection and self-examination. How might each of us have contributed to the election of an incompetent, immoral, egotistical political neophyte whose core supporters seem to nihilistically relish nothing more than “triggering the libs”? Before exploring a better way forward, these conservatives must realize the gravity of our current situation and how we got here. Otherwise, they may continue to entertain the delusion that the Trump Era is opening the door to a better conservatism.


Yes, You Can Regulate Evil: Why Catholics Should Support Stricter Gun Laws

“You can’t regulate evil.”  These words, spoken by Matt Bevin, the Governor of Kentucky, seem to resonate with so many Americans.  Horrific acts of brutal violence are the price we pay for living in a free society, or so people claim.

Nevertheless, as Catholics, we do not believe this, and our faith does not teach this.  The fatalistic attitude that bad things will happen because bad people exist fails to take into account the very purpose of laws.  The essence of law is to regulate and reduce bad behavior, in addition to directing citizens towards making good decisions.  Catholics believe that good laws can help to create better people.  Laws should point society towards the common good.

St. Thomas Aquinas argues that laws can do two things: first, the coercive power of laws can pressure or scare citizens into obeying rules, and second, laws can work to create more virtuous citizens.  Through this coercive element of law, even those who are the most vile and dangerous to society can be pushed in the direction of virtue.  By prohibiting the unethical behavior that citizens might engage in, laws teach citizens good and virtuous behavior.

While Aquinas points out that laws cannot aim to create a perfect society filled with citizens who possess all the virtues of goodness, laws should always be oriented towards creating a system that promotes the common good and welfare of society.  Obviously, Aquinas states, society cannot prohibit all vices; it would be impossible to do so.  Nevertheless, in order to promote the common good, laws need to prohibit the most egregious misdeeds that people are capable of committing.  These include laws against assault, murder, etc.  Violence perpetrated by guns clearly falls into this category.

The simple fact of the matter is that Catholics need to support stricter gun laws and restrictions on weapons. There is a culture of violence and death that is abetted by our excessively libertarian approach to guns. The absence of adequate regulations results in harmful, unethical behavior that can be reduced. There’s no way around this; if you are Catholic, then you need to be in favor of creating governmental policies that will reduce gun deaths.

Using law to promote virtue and goodness in people might sound far-fetched, but we only need to look to civil rights laws that promoted and protected the equality of women, ethnic and racial minorities, religious minorities, persons with disabilities, and gay, lesbian, and transgender persons to find real examples of this in action.  Various laws have helped to shift public opinion and have created a society that not only protects but also accepts and embraces people who were previously oppressed or ostracized. Bigotry, injustice, and inequality remain, but changes in law have dramatically shifted both behavior and attitudes in a positive direction.

Why should our attitude about guns be any different?  Why couldn’t well-designed laws and regulations on firearms help to create a more virtuous community?  The very point of law is to regulate evil and to convert those who might otherwise commit that evil. From a broad lens, it seems obvious that the United States has a great deal of room for improvement on this.

It is true that crafting legislation in this area is an incredibly complex issue in the US; and there does not need to be a “one size fits all” approach to regulating guns.  Aquinas makes the point that different communities might need different variations of the law to match the needs of the community.  We can do the same with guns.

Rural areas will likely need different rules and regulations than large cities, and areas with lots of hunters will need different laws than places where hunting is non-existent.  But this is the beauty of the American federal system.  Local, state, and the federal government can all engage in the policy making process to make laws that make sense for their area.

Given how pervasive gun violence is in this country, doing nothing is not an option.  If we take the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas seriously, then Catholics need to be on the front lines of this fight for better gun control.  To continue to throw our collective hands up in the air and to say “these thing happen” only further invites these things to happen.


Trump is No Ally to Catholics

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At the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence proudly proclaimed that “American Catholics have an ally in President Donald Trump.”  But which Catholics really do have an ally in President Trump?

Is he an ally of Catholic women who want to have families?  Is he an ally of the unborn?  Trumpcare would blow up a critical part of the safety net that supports women who want to have families, protects unborn children, and assists the vulnerable in ensuring they have affordable access to essential healthcare.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) protected pregnant women from discrimination in the healthcare system by not allowing insurers to charge them more for wanting to have (or being open to having) children. The Affordable Care Act has made it easier for unborn children and their mothers to receive essential prenatal care.  All of the regular prenatal check-ups, tests, and ultrasounds are covered at no extra cost to pregnant women under the ACA.  Infant mortality rates are directly tied to access to quality preventive care for both the mother and child.

Allowing states to undo these protections not only risks increasing the infant mortality rates, it puts the lives of mothers at risk as well because without comprehensive preventative prenatal care, many diseases and conditions will go undetected and untreated.  Regular check-ups for expecting mothers includes screenings for sexually transmitted diseases and other conditions like strep B, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia that could not only result in harm or death to the child, but result serious harm to the mother. Periodic ultrasounds, meanwhile, ensure the proper development of the child and allow doctors to check for any potential birth defects that can be corrected either in utero or with surgery immediately after birth.

Stripping away ACA protections for expectant mothers and unborn children discourages families from having children. This will almost certainly increase the abortion rate. Increasing premiums on women and families that want to have kids is an anti-family policy that punishes low income families, in particular.

Is Donald Trump an ally of the Catholic worker?  President Trump signed an executive order that rolls back protections for workers, especially women employees.  The Fair Wage and Safe Workplaces order “included two rules that impacted women workers: paycheck transparency and a ban on forced arbitration clauses for sexual harassment, sexual assault or discrimination claims.”  President Trump has eliminated these protections.

President Trump has argued that wages are too high for America’s workers.  His pick for the Secretary of Labor position, Andrew Puzder, opposes raising the minimum wage and wants to further cut workplace safety regulations.   Labor unions see threats to collective bargaining and are increasingly worried about potential overhauls to labor laws and an increase in “right to work” legislation.

Is President Trump an ally to Catholics with disabilities?  He has openly mocked people with disabilities. Potential cuts to Medicaid and decreased protections for those with preexisting conditions will disproportionately harm those with disabilities.

Is President Trump an ally of Catholic immigrants?  He is certainly not an ally of the 11 million immigrants whom he wants to deport.  He is not an ally of the immigrant families who will be broken up because of his policies.  ICE raids are up 40% under Trump’s administration.

Is President Trump an ally of Catholics who desire protections for religious freedom?  Don’t believe the rhetoric from the Trump White House; he is no friend of religious liberty.  Trump has argued that he could round up and register Muslims living in the United States.  He plans gross violations of religious liberty by using the power of the United States government to close down Mosques and places of worship that are “un-American.”  His recent refugee ban, targeted at Muslim-majority countries, further demonstrates his lack of commitment to freedom of religion in America.

If he can target Muslims one day, why not Catholics who oppose his blatantly un-Catholic polices the next?  Donald Trump shows an open disregard for the most vulnerable of people and basic democratic norms.

Catholics believe in government that is directed toward the common good of all in society.  This is why Catholicism puts such a heavy emphasis on strong communities that are tightly bound together.  But the common good is not just what is good for society as a whole, the common good starts and ends with the good of each individual person.  It is because of this principle that we are obliged to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable members of society.

As Catholics, we have a serious obligation to protect religious and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, women, the unborn, workers, and immigrants.  A true ally of Catholics would stand in solidarity with these groups, not target them.

No, Vice President Pence, President Trump is not an ally that Catholics can count on.


Machismo Madness is Damaging American Politics and Our Society

The night before the election, the Republican candidate for Montana’s lone congressional seat, Greg Gianforte, body slammed the Guardian’s political reporter Ben Jacobs, who was trying to get Gianforte to comment on the CBO’s score of the American Health Care Act and captured the entire altercation on an audio tape.  Unsurprisingly, a number of prominent conservative members of the media were quick to attack Jacobs, calling him a “wuss,” saying that he deserved it, and that he’s a snitch for calling the police.  On Twitter, there are reports of Republican voters in Montana who are saying that Jacobs had it coming and that other members of the media deserve what happened to him.  Even more depressing is that members of Congress were making jokes about how they have wanted to “body slam” reporters in the past.

Gianforte’s assault and battery of a reporter is not a surprise, nor is the conservative response in defending him. President Trump has viciously vilified the media as liars, dangerous, enemies of the people, fake news, and dishonest.  Reporters at Trump’s campaign rallies were often threatened and felt endangered.  It’s surprising that it took this long for it to reach this point.

But Gianforte’s violent response to Jacobs, and the positive responses to it, are symptomatic of a larger problem in the conservative movement: an obsession with faux-masculinity.  The Republican Party has descended into what we might call “machismo madness.”  There’s a growing obsession with real men and how real men are supposed to act that borders on idolatry.

Few embody this machismo madness better than President Trump. Donald Trump has been recorded calling women “fat pigs,” “slobs,” and “Miss Piggy”; rating women’s bodies on a scale of 1-10; and bragging about using his money and his fame as an excuse to sexually assault women by “grabbing them by the pussy.”  Then a slew of women came forward to state that he had, in fact, sexually assault them just as he publicly said he did.  Trump said in a debate that Hillary Clinton did not have the “look” of a President.  None of this was problematic for either Republicans or conservative voters.  He was just being a real man with manly locker room behavior and banter.

Sexual assault is just a man being a man; all real men do it. Beating up protestors is how real men deal with people who are disturbing them. Grading women on a hotness scale is how real men treat women; and these women really want to be objectified by real men, even though they won’t say so. Real men don’t complain to the police when they’re choked, tackled, and punched; the man who did the punching is the real man because real men stand up for themselves with violence.  All real men have guns, carry guns around for protection, and will use guns to defend themselves.

These attitudes are a result of a post-modern conservative mindset in which conservatives long for a past that never existed, a fantasy golden age created from literature, media, and political speeches. In this past that never was, men were strong, violent, and powerful. Cultural changes in our society are causing people to flee to this false past as a refuge, instead of coming to terms with their place in the modern world.  Read More


How Sexism and the Desire to Blow the System Up Led to Trump’s Victory

So the election is over, and Donald Trump will be president. What do we make of what transpired?  There are many takeaways from this election, but I’d like to reflect on just a couple of points.

The first is that sexism and misogyny are alive and well in the United States of America.  Let us go back to 2008 for just a moment; imagine if it came out that then GOP nominee John McCain had been recorded using repulsive racial slurs in reference to black people. Then, picture African-Americans coming forward and accusing John McCain of openly racist behavior towards them.  How would the public respond to the blatant racism of a candidate running for President of the United States, especially when that person is running against the first African-American nominee?  Disqualifying perhaps?  A national outrage?  Then imagine that John McCain, after having said and done all those racist things, beats Barack Obama, an African-American.  What would we think about America then?

Now let’s go back to the present.  The GOP nominee for President of the United States, Donald Trump, has been recorded calling women “fat pigs,” “slobs,” “Miss Piggy,” rating women’s bodies on a scale of 1-10, and bragging about using his money and his fame as an excuse to sexually assault women by “grabbing them by the pussy.”  Then a slew of women came forward to confirm that he had, in-fact, sexually assaulted them just as he publicly had said that he did.  Donald Trump was running against the first major party woman nominee for President, Hillary Clinton. Trump even went so far as to say that Hillary Clinton did not have the “look” of a President.  None of this was problematic for American voters.  Donald Trump beat the first woman nominee for President after being openly sexist and misogynistic, and even after sexually assaulting women and bragging about it.

Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton despite the fact that Trump had zero political experience, along with no military experience (the first nominee of either major party to have neither), while Hillary Clinton was President Obama’s Secretary of State and a former Senator from New York.  Americans did not seem to care about Trump’s lack of experience in comparison to Hillary Clinton’s years of public service; of even greater importance, Republicans, who in 2008 argued that then-Senator Barack Obama lacked experience to be President, did not care that Donald Trump lacked any political experience to be President. Whether you agree with her positions or not, Hillary Clinton was an exceptionally disciplined candidate who studied policy deeply, while Trump refused to prepare legitimate answers on numerous policy questions and even lacks a basic understanding of the role of the president.  America does not seem to be troubled by this.

The second point is about the growth of fear and desperation in America.  Some might argue that “white fly-over America” voted based on their naked self-interest.  They unleashed terror on America’s most vulnerable by giving in to race-baiting and a politics of fear and hatred.  I do not doubt that there is an element of that in this election.  However, we also must recognize that Middle America suffers and feels just as unwanted and unwelcome in this country.  People in Flint, Michigan—black, white, and everyone else–continue to drink poisoned water while their means of livelihood have been eliminated either via automation or globalization.  People who live in coal country and former steel workers are losing their jobs while their towns dwindle to near non-existence.  All the while, the costs of basic necessities have risen, the cost of educating their children have sky-rocketed, drug addition and overdoses plague their communities, and no one seems to give a damn about them.  Worse yet, they are lectured about their “white privilege” while drinking water contaminated with the poisonous run-off from coal mining in West Virginia.

We have to understand their struggle, and it appears that we have failed to do so.  Their vote for Donald Trump was a vote to destroy a system that they see as having abandoned them.  They pulled the pin on the Trump grenade because they saw no other way forward.   He may be a conman, his policies are probably not in their actual economic interests, his values are probably not their values, but he promised what no other candidate promised them: to blow the system up.  I cannot condone their vote for Donald Trump, but I can understand why they chose to do it.

Nevertheless, while those who live in bright blue America need to do a better job of encountering Middle America, that does not absolve white Middle America from doing what they did.  I have seen a lot of social media posts from friends who are apologizing for white America and asking how white people could betray their brothers and sisters of color, their Muslim neighbors, and other vulnerable communities.  They have a valid point in that “fly over country” America voted for a man who insulted and threatened basically every ethnic and minority group in the country.  He threatened to separate immigrant families with deportation, to round up Muslims, register them, and monitor their Mosques, and promised to create “law and order” in minority communities.

The people who Donald Trump has insulted now feel a legitimate sense of terror.  They legitimately feel as if they are unwanted and unwelcome.  Worse yet, it seems as if the election of Trump has made it acceptable to be a bigot again.  Muslim women are being taunted and threatened; Latinos are being harassed in schools as their classmates shout “build the wall;” gay, lesbian, and transgender students at many colleges are afraid to leave their dorm rooms because they might be assaulted.

Rust Belt America needs to encounter ethnic, racial, and religious minorities.  America is become more and more diverse, and white America needs to realize that diversity and multiculturalism are not values that liberals push on people—they are the basic facts of life.  The United States of America is not going to get less diverse just because they want it to.  Globalization is not going away just because they want it to. America is constantly evolving, and just because you do not like it that does not make it wrong.  These two Americas need to engage each other, learn from each other, and find away to co-exist in this country.  How that happens, I have no clue.


Solidarity and Voting: Vote Your Conscience, Not Your Privilege

Donald Trump continues his scorched earth campaigning, this time by sinking to new lows: he attacked the father of a fallen US soldier who was killed in Iraq, along with the Gold Star mother of that very same soldier.  The repudiation of his attacks by other Republicans was swift and harsh, but, this is just latest in a slew of examples that demonstrate that Donald Trump does not have the temperament, empathy, or disposition to be President of the United States.

The #NeverTrump movement continues to gain steam, but the #NeverTrump movement is also joined by a robust #NeverHillary movement as well.  The “never” camps primarily consist of voters who feel left out of both major political parties—these voters feel they must vote for a third party as a way to “vote their conscience” or in order to lodge a “protest vote” against what they view as unsatisfactory options. This type of strategic voting, however, is a privilege that many Americans cannot afford.

The choice to vote for a third party candidate as an exercise of principle entails an inherent risk that your more-preferred major party candidate may lose the election. For many of the most vulnerable, the outcome of this election will carry very tangible and potentially catastrophic results that would make taking such a risk unacceptable. Read More


Replace Just War Theory with Nonviolence—What about Syria and Genocide?

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A historic conference recently wrapped up at the Vatican that addressed the continued relevance of the traditional Catholic doctrine of just war theory.

Just war theory outlines the moral requirements surrounding the decision to use force and the ethical limits on using force justly. The decision to use force requires a just cause, right intention, a reasonable probability of success, and proportionality. It must be undertaken by a legitimate authority and only as a last resort.

The Church’s criteria for the justness of the conduct during the war include: all military action must be necessary to achieve the just end, all actions are done for the right intention, the military actions demonstrate proportionality in the good achieved as compared the harm inflicted on the enemy, and innocent civilians should be protected from unnecessary harm (it is always immoral to directly and intentionally target the innocent). It is never about the ends justifying the means; the means must be as pure as the end being sought. Despite the carnage inherent in war, the Church has taught that certain moral obligations must be maintained for a war to be just.

Instead of seeking to modify this traditional Catholic doctrine, the conference pushes for an encyclical advocating for nonviolence to replace just war theory entirely. The participants at the conference argue that there is no longer such a thing as just war and “suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.”

Supporters of this theory claim that instead of limiting the conditions for war, just war theory has often been used to exacerbate conflict and provide a pretext for aggressive, interventionist actions. Of course, moral rules cannot be eliminated simply because they are ignored or abused at times; Church teaching explicitly rejects that type of consequentialism. Ultimately, they contend that war is not the solution to stopping conflicts of any type and that non-violent means have been used with great success throughout history to resolve conflicts and overturn oppression.

To this observer, the call to systematically dismantle just war theory when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has viciously butchered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens and Daesh is engaging in the ruthless slaughter of thousands of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in territories they control sounds completely out of touch with reality.    Read More