The United States presidential election campaign which is nearing its end has received much attention in the world, including here in Nigeria. Notice how frequently it receives coverage in our national media. An aspect of the campaign that particularly caught my attention as a Catholic, is the subject of this article. That aspect – which may teach a thing or two to us in Nigeria - is what they call “the Catholic vote”. Imagine hearing such a thing in a country that is one of the most constitutionally affirmed secular democracies in the world, where separation of church and state is a political dogma. Yet, this phenomenon of the “Catholic vote” is openly spoken of, discussed and canvassed about, by politicians and media pundits. If this were in Nigeria, one would have heard condemnatory howls about “religious politics”. Pundits would have been screaming that religion is being used to divide the nation as if the nation is an abstract entity without people deeply marked in their sociological, even ethnic identities. However, this is by the way and a topic for another day. Let us return to the U.S.
I am really surprised to notice the way party candidates and their supporters have not baulked at coming out to talk openly about their faith affiliations and to target religious groups, among others, in the campaign for votes. I am using Catholics as such a target group in this article. Major U.S. news organs, political groups and citizens, openly and unabashedly ventilated views on the Catholic vote. They speculated on how Catholic voters, judging from previous presidential voting patterns, could swing victory for either of the two main contending candidates, the Democratic Party's, Hillary Clinton and the Republican Party's, Donald Trump. Much of the discussion centred, however - at the earlier stages of the campaign - on what the headlines called Trump's “massive Catholic Problem”. Setting the ball rolling was the WASHINGTON POST, the prestigious and influential daily which is a must read for the political establishment in Washington D.C., the nation's capital city. In its issue of August 30, 2016, the paper mentioned Donald Trump's problems with various voting groups like blacks. It however added that “relatively speaking, his biggest problem actually appears to be with a different group: Catholics”. According to it, “Trump trails among Catholics by a huge margin” at the time, and cited a poll showing him down 23 points, 32 to Clinton's 55.
Ventilating similar views on the Catholic vote were a wide range of other notable publications. THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE's article of August 28, 2016 has the headline: “Donald Trump has a massive Catholic problem”. It noted that “Catholics have long been a swing vote in presidential elections, and right now they're swinging hard for Clinton”; it concluded that “whatever the cause, Trump's struggles among Catholics remain one of the really undersold story lines of the 2016 election”. Even the business magazine, FORBES did not shy away from publicly recognizing the religious (Catholic) dimension of the election. From its article again headlined, “Trump Has A Catholic Problem”, one learns about the demographic facet of the problem. “Today”, states the magazine, “ one in four people adheres to the (Catholic) faith, accounting for 74 million Americans…the most prominent faith in America, and this growing Catholic community in America isn't voting for Trump”. Would they be voting for his rival, Clinton? Wait for the answer in a moment.
Even outside America, there is talk of the Catholic vote. Here are two examples. THE TABLET, a London-based Catholic weekly asks: “Can Hillary Clinton carry the Catholic vote for the Democrats in the US presidential election?” It answers: “Catholic voters, especially the swing ones in key marginal states, could be the passport to the Oval Office” (18 August, 2016). If polls at the time were to be believed, Clinton seemed then to be coasting towards grabbing the passport. As for her rival, the renowned ECONOMIST also of London, joined the bandwagon of having to explain “Why Donald Trump is losing among Catholic voters who are the biggest single religious contingent in the American electorate”(Sept 1st, 2016).
My focus in this article is not about why the said Catholic vote at a particular time was held to be starched up against Donald Trump, or why on the other hand, it seemed to be swinging Hillary Clinton's way. My concern for now is to show the mere fact that everybody has been publicly talking about the matter without qualms and has been insisting that the Catholic vote matters. Does the Trump camp believe so and if it does, has Trump done anything about it? Yes is the answer, and here are three publications that agree on what Trump has done. CP POLITICS says: “Losing Catholics Bigly, Trump Campaign announces Catholic Advisory Board …” (September 27, 2016). DAILY NEWS states: “Trump names heavyweight group of Catholic advisers” (September 23, 2016). NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER headlined its story thus: “Donald Trump Names 34 Members to Council of Catholic Advisers” (09/22/2016). And as I was putting a finishing touch to this article, I saw a published copy of a letter dated October 5, 2016, which Trump addressed to Catholic leaders gathered in a conference. In the letter, he acknowledged Catholics as being “a rich part of our nation's history”, identified himself with, and vowed to support, core values important to U.S. Catholics (Catholic News Agency, CNA, Oct. 6, 2016).
All that is a strategic move by the Trump campaign because, as the HUFFINGTON POST stated, “the Catholic vote in America has had a unique ability to be on the winning side in five of the last six elections…Given that, it is not a constituency that Donald Trump can easily afford to lose”(Sep 19, 2016).
However, in this fast developing story of the presidential election, the above happened before the just exposed episode of Trump's lewd comments about women in an audio recording from 2005. For this, the Catholic political advocacy group, CatholicVote.org has joined calls for Trump to step down (CNA/EWTN News, Oct. 8, 2016). One wonders whether this development has doomed his Catholic outreach team efforts to help his ticket square up to Clinton's, which has a Catholic, Tim Kaine, as running mate.
In the end, how will Catholics vote, come Election Day, November 8? There is some evidence that the American electorate, including Catholics, is not terribly excited about either of the two candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Above other perceived flaws, both are considered short on trust-worthiness, a quality that Americans very much value in their leaders. The dilemma on the part of Catholics came through just this October, during the in-flight press conference that Pope Francis granted to journalists on the papal plane while he was returning to Rome on October 2nd, from his last foreign trip to Azerbaijan. An American journalist, John Jeremiah Sullivan from THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, brought up the difficulty that the American faithful and people of conscience have in choosing between Clinton and Trump. The Pope was asked for his counsel. Wisely of course, he refrained from taking sides and simply replied: “Study the proposals well, pray and choose in conscience”.
That's about also what the Catholic leaders in America are telling their faithful. Additionally, last September, two months before the culminating Election Day, a leading American prelate, Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl had reportedly admonished fellow bishops and priests to refrain from becoming entangled in partisan politics. Their role, he emphasized, was that of teachers of the faith and guiders of the laity in their role to apply their faith in the political realm “and become salt and light in our democracy” (CRUX, September 10, 2016). Salutary advice to clergy everywhere including here in Nigeria!