On primary day in Florida it was like Palm Sunday for Donald Trump, replicating a trend seen in contest after contest: Evangelical and Catholic voters swinging decisively for the GOP front-runner. The question is, why?
The Florida exit polls were striking. A full 50 percent of Catholics in the Sunshine State voted for Trump, while only 33 percent voted for the Catholic, Sen. Marco Rubio. Trump’s support among born-again Christians: 49 percent. Meanwhile, the evangelical Ted Cruz languished with only 20 percent of the votes from his own pew mates.
Trump's hold on both Catholics and evangelicals is by no means restricted to Florida. Massachusetts exit polls reveal that Trump drew a stunning 53 percent of the Catholic vote and 49 percent of evangelicals there.
On the surface, a thrice-married, jet-setting billionaire with a penchant for expletives and a casual familiarity with the Scripture would seem a bad match for religiously-minded voters. Nevertheless, in Michigan, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and other contests, Trump handily won the majority of both Catholics and evangelicals. Something is clearly happening, but what?
Leaders are all too aware of the pattern. Seeking to stop the faithful stampede to The Donald, a phalanx of religious leaders have risen up in recent days — not to support another candidate, but to condemn Trump with usually harsh and unforgiving language.
Evangelical heavyweights like James Dobson, Max Lucado, and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention have decried Trump as an “economic swindle” and a “social Darwinist.” Lucado insisted that Trump lacks “decency.”
A parcel of Catholic intellectuals recently signed an open letter condemning the GOP front-runner for his “vulgarity, oafishness,” and “shocking ignorance.” In between garment rending, these “never Trumpers,” like so many in the Beltway crowd, admit they can neither explain nor make sense of the Catholic/evangelical Trump phenomenon.
Stephen Prothero, a Boston College religion professor, explained the evangelical exodus to Trump in a recent Politico article. It’s simple, he says: “American evangelicals are just not that evangelical anymore.”
I’m not so sure that theory washes — and it certainly does not explain the Catholic support for Trump. So I decided to make it my business to visit key primary states and talk to Catholic and evangelical Americans on their own turf.
I tried to situate myself at polling places in Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Michigan on big primary nights while on the road. In some cases, I visited the states shortly after primary voting, speaking in depth with scores of Catholics and evangelicals. Their surprising personal explanations for casting votes for Donald Trump made more sense to me than anything I have heard or read in D.C.
For all the fury and indignation coming from the establishment over the rise of Trump, in the minds of these voters, it is the establishment itself that is most responsible for his rise and enduring popularity.
Conservative evangelicals and Catholics feel betrayed by the politicians they helped elect in the past. An observation shared by a man in Alabama was heard over and over again: “We voted for these people, and look at the state of marriage. We voted for them, and I’m now competing for jobs with people coming across the border. Why not give Trump a chance? He says he’ll protect the border. He says he’s pro-life now. I believe him and nobody owns him. He could be different.”
When I challenged these faith-based voters with the concerns raised by leaders in their respective communions, I discovered an even deeper reason for their support of Trump. Nearly every evangelical and Catholic I encountered expressed outrage over what some described as “the politicization of the church.”
Both evangelical and Catholic leaders have in recent years hardened their positions on a host of once-secondary political issues, to the dismay of their conservative flock. While muting their voices on the big ticket issues of life and traditional marriage, these voters claim, the churches are embracing agendas long championed by the Democratic Party.
Pope Francis’ support of a U.N. treaty to limit carbon emissions, an emphasis on the social gospel, as well as calls from some evangelicals and the Catholic bishops to loosen immigration restrictions have irritated swaths of rank-and-file faithful.
This political divide within the church squares with what Korey Maas noted in a recent Federalist article: “Monmouth has found that 76 percent of Catholic Republicans support building a wall across the border, 61 percent support the Trump immigration plan — despite Pope Francis and the bishops insistence to welcome the immigrant.”
These faithful voters seem open to receiving general moral principals from the churches to shape their voting. But the combination of making it seem heretical to disagree over what they see as secondary political issues and blatantly forbidding them to vote for a particular candidate has turned them rebellious. They are not just voting against the establishment of their party — but the establishment in their churches.
“Voting for Trump is a way to stop the church’s advance into politics. It’s a check and balance,” a Catholic Michigan woman told me. “Jesus didn’t come to ply a political agenda. He came to save us. All these other things [immigration and environmental policies] are prudential judgments. We don’t need the bishops telling us about immigration. We live the problem every day.”
An evangelical in Louisiana was just as explicit: “To me Trump blocks all these church people who want to be politicians. I love my pastor, but we didn’t elect him to speak for us politically. I’ve got this — and I agree with Trump.”
Perhaps Holy Week is the perfect time for religious and political leaders to do some soul searching and to recall the ruinous effects of those who attempted to secure their power by demonizing a charismatic leader. Only in this case, by misunderstanding the motives of their own people, their efforts could well cause the candidate they fear most to rise again.
Raymond Arroyo is a New York Times best-selling author, most recently of "Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls" (Random House) and managing editor of EWTN News.
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