The June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was unusual, not least of all for its bringing together the heads of two countries who have remained officially at war even since the cease-fire in the Korean War in 1953. The meeting also came on the heels of extended confrontation, between Trump’s often-tweeted jabs at the dictator and the country’s persistent weapons and missile tests, which spiked tensions globally for much of the last two years.
Archbishop Alfred Zuereb, nuncio to Korea and Mongolia, told Vatican News that the summit was “truly historic,” one that marked “an important page at the beginning of a long and arduous road.”
While Trump remains a divisive and confrontational figure, his support among members of his own party stands at 87 percent (per a June Gallup poll). With numbers like that, it’s worth noting the role Catholics play in his political fortunes.
The road to Trump
Two years ago, Peter Wolfgang vowed that he would quit the Republican Party if Donald Trump became the GOP’s presidential nominee. A lot has happened since then. Trump won the 2016 presidential election, and for the most part Wolfgang has liked what he has seen in the first 18 months of the Trump administration.
“Two years later, I’m on board the Trump train,” said Wolfgang, a longtime pro-life activist and faithful Catholic who serves as executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut.
Wolfgang’s evolution marks one example of how Catholics have wrestled to come to terms with Trump, an unconventional figure who has turned the political establishment upside down and challenged conventional wisdom at home and abroad, the latter a source of consternation to longtime allies.
Polls indicate Trump won about 52 percent of the Catholic vote in 2016, so whatever reservations Catholic voters may have had about him, most clearly saw Trump as a better alternative than Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee who championed abortion rights and proposed to repeal the Hyde amendment and its restriction on using taxpayer money for elective abortions.
Wolfgang and other Catholics who are conservative in their politics said they voted for Trump because of concerns that Clinton would aggressively push a socially liberal agenda, one that in eight years under President Barack Obama’s administration saw various challenges to religious freedom and conscience rights, the legalization of same-sex marriage and the rise of gender ideology.
“It got really ugly, really fast. It showed Christians that a lot of their organizations and institutions that they built up over the last 20 to 30 years could all get crushed in a moment,” said Joshua Mercer, the political director of Catholic Vote.
Mercer told Our Sunday Visitor that the 2016 election marked a point where Christian voters “pulled the alarm” after eight years of a relentless political Left that sought to punish dissenters from same-sex marriage and compel religious nonprofits to provide abortifacient contraceptives.
“We all saw the rapid changes that happened in the marriage laws,” Mercer said. “It was just a bulldozer, and people asked, ‘What’s the next shoe to drop? It could be our necks.'”
Having observed Trump’s conservative judicial nominees and his administration’s policies that have prioritized religious freedom in public health policy and pro-life values in foreign policy, Wolfgang came around on the brash and controversial New Yorker.
“In some way, Trump’s flamboyant temperament is actually a plus,” Wolfgang told OSV. “He’s willing to shake things up in Washington in a way that I don’t think any of the other 16 Republicans who ran for president would have been able to do.”
Mercer noted to OSV that Catholic Vote, a politically conservative nonprofit, never endorsed Trump during the 2016 campaign.
“We knew what we were getting with Donald Trump,” Mercer said. “We had our issues with him.”
Trump ran as a pro-life candidate who would nominate pro-life justices, which created a sharp contrast from Clinton, a longtime outspoken supporter of legal abortion. Clinton’s abortion zeal automatically disqualified her among scores of faithful Catholics who could not in good conscience vote for her.
“For myself, abortion is the preeminent issue,” Wolfgang said. “And I never saw anything in Donald Trump that made him so far beyond the pale that I was willing to give up the 45-year-long quest to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“If Hillary had won, it would have been game over,” Wolfgang added.
‘Warts and all’
Mercer said he had low expectations for Trump, but admitted that he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the president’s judicial appointments and policies, which include pushing Congress to pass tax reform, exempting religious nonprofits from the federal government’s contraceptive mandate and creating a new office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to protect religious conscience rights.
“Donald Trump, warts and all, has basically turned out to be what he said he was going to be,” Mercer said.
But those “warts” are problematic. Since before Trump’s election, he and his inner circle have been beset with turmoil ranging from past comments and allegations of maltreating women, including the infamous “Access Hollywood Tape” and alleged payments to a performer in pornographic films. Also of concern are his disregard for democratic and institutional norms related to the government and rule of law, and his embrace of authoritarian strongmen, including Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin — the latter also being part of the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials in the latter’s meddling with the 2016 election.
“Whatever you want to say about Donald Trump, very few people can say with a straight face that they want their kid to grow up to be like him. He’s just not morally a good character,” said Jesuit Father James Bretzke, a moral theologian at Boston College. But that’s not his followers’ focus.
“Trump tapped into a demographic that nobody cared about,” said Robert Destro, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. Destro told OSV that Trump’s judicial appointments have been “excellent,” especially the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Destro added that it is a mistake to focus on Trump’s style. “Rather, you should cut through the style issues and focus on whether his policies are or are not consistent with Catholic social teaching on the issue or issues of concern to the Catholic community.”
Moving beyond those issues, Mercer said, “I’m fascinated by this concept that because the president is ‘on my side,’ then that means I own all of his statements.”
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Wolfgang said. “The best advice I can give is take it on a case-by-case basis, and don’t go into the Trump phenomenon with the attitude that I’m never going to criticize this man, that he’s beyond any kind of disagreement because he’s doing what I want.”
Politics, Wolfgang added, is the art of the possible, and those like him have been working hard to fight for the pro-life movement and religious liberty for several decades.
Said Wolfgang, “If given a choice a between a pro-life, religious liberty movement whose reputation is slightly tarred but actually accomplishes things, versus a pro-life movement whose reputation is pristine but accomplishes nothing, well, I’ll take the former over the latter.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.