Joe Biden has repeatedly characterised the US presidential election as a "battle for the soul of America". But it is, much more specifically, a battle for the soul of Catholic America. On the one side, Biden, if elected, would be only the second Catholic president – and he models himself very obviously on the first, John F Kennedy.
On the other, Donald Trump, after he nominated Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy on the supreme court created by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, claimed that “the Catholic Church is very well united on this. They are so thrilled that Amy has been chosen.”
The political meaning of Catholicism is right at the heart of this epic contest. On the Left, Biden is much more openly devout than Kennedy was – he carries with him all the time the rosary beads of his dead son Beau.
Trump's flagrant personal immorality, his brutal policies and his anti-immigrant rhetoric should all make him anathema to the church
He identifies himself emphatically as an “Irish Catholic”. His religious faith is a big part of his almost priestly appeal, as the figure who can be bring healing and peace to a country mired in pain and hatred.
On the Right, Trump has forged a formidable alliance with conservative Irish-American Catholicism. It is evident in the names of so many of the people who have enabled him: Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway (née Fitzpatrick), Mick Mulvaney, John Kelly, Mike Flynn, his current national security adviser Robert O'Brien and so on.
The name of the most important figure in Trump's administration, attorney general Robert Barr, may not be such an obvious signifier, but Barr is also an Irish-American Catholic – both of his maternal grandparents were born here.
This right-wing nexus spreads far beyond the White House and the administration. Trump's claim to have "the Catholic Church" onside is (unusually for him) not outlandish. The most senior figure in the church in the US, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, literally gave his blessing to the Republican convention in August, sending an unmistakable signal to the faithful.
In a recording released in April of an event connecting Trump with 600 influential Catholics (including bishops and heads of school boards), Dolan introduced the president by speaking warmly of their friendship and joking that he was on the phone more often to Trump than to his own mother.
A third of American Catholics are Latino – and the proportion is growing steadily
This is, on the face of it, remarkable. Trump is a self-declared sexual predator with a long history of dishonest financial dealings (underscored by this week’s revelations about the heroic scale of his tax dodging). He openly seeks the support of neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
He uses racist tropes and stirs hatred and conflict. He lies all the time. Pope Francis even described Trump’s signature policy of building a wall along the Mexican border as “not Christian”.
His anti-immigrant policies have included breaking up families and keeping children in cages. These families and children are overwhelmingly Catholic. A third of American Catholics are Latino – and the proportion is growing steadily. Any strategic assessment of where the church is going in the US would surely conclude that much of its future lies with the very immigrant communities that the president has so often demonised.
Trump’s flagrant personal immorality, his brutal policies and his anti-immigrant rhetoric should all make him anathema to the church. Instead, he is as close as makes no difference to being the official Catholic candidate – against an actual Catholic.
How has he managed this? It is, arguably, his greatest political achievement and it is one that needs to be taken very seriously. But to do that we have to qualify one of the most powerful perceptions of Trump: that he is a divisive figure. He is, of course – except if you are a white religious conservative. From that perspective, he is a unifier. He has bridged the divide between right-wing Catholics and right-wing Evangelicals.
The first thing to reckon with here is that perceptions of American Catholicism – and especially of Irish-American Catholicism – tend to be skewed towards urban east coast liberalism. The history of its political impact is naturally shaped around the big figures: Al Smith (the first Catholic to run for the presidency for one of the big parties), the Kennedy dynasty, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Tip O’Neill. It also, of course, includes the giants of Italian-American politics, from Fiorello La Guardia to Mario (and now Andrew) Cuomo.
The identification of political Catholicism with liberal and even progressive causes was sealed by the fantasy presidency of Jed Bartlet in The West Wing. Bartlet (played by the Irish-American Catholic Martin Sheen) was like Biden in his piety: often, the camera would focus on his bedside rosary as he wrangled with heavy decisions. But, like Biden, he also followed the template set out so powerfully by John F Kennedy in defending himself from allegations that a Catholic president would be loyal to Rome first, America second.
In a famous address to Southern Baptist ministers in Houston in 1960, Kennedy stated bluntly, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president, I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
This would be Jed Bartlet’s line – and is still Biden’s. It relies on a distinction between public office and private belief: as a faithful Catholic, I may be against contraception, divorce and abortion. But as a leader for all citizens, regardless of their faith, I do not seek to impose these views through the law.
In the 1990s, this view was very mainstream – a New York Times poll found that 75 per cent of Americans would have voted for Jed Bartlet if only he were real. But a simple way to measure how this has changed is to look at all the merchandise in Bartlet’s office that is branded with the logo of his (very Catholic) alma mater, Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
It was in Notre Dame a year ago that Barr gave a hair-raising speech in which he attacked the whole idea that the US, constitutionally and institutionally, is a republic built on the separation of church and state.
This far-right strain of political Catholicism was held back somewhat by an obvious handicap: the anti-Catholicism of most of US right-wing politics
To the contrary, Barr argued, the whole American system is built on the assumption that its citizens must be “a religious people – a people who recognised that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law”. Religion comes first – citizenship and law second.
And it is from Notre Dame that Trump has plucked Coney Barrett, who studied there and then became a long-serving member of its law faculty, as his nominee for the supreme court. There, she will join Trump's two other nominees: Neil Gorsuch, who was raised as a Catholic, and Brett Kavanaugh, who is a conservative Irish-American Catholic. These are the judges intended to shift the American polity to the right, not just for now, but for many decades to come. And this is the implicit deal that binds the apparently unlikely alliance between the irreligious and flagrantly amoral Trump and right-wing Catholicism.
The hypocrisy involved in this relationship is staggering. In his Notre Dame speech last October, Barr preached that, “As Catholics, we are committed to the Judeo-Christian values that have made this country great. And we know that the first thing we have to do to promote renewal is to ensure that we are putting our principles into practice in our own personal private lives.” But Trump gets a free pass on this rule. In common with many Evangelicals, conservative Catholics convince themselves that Trump is an example of God’s mysterious ways – a sinner sent to save America’s soul.
Yet, historically speaking, there is no great surprise in this coalition between Trump’s vicious self-aggrandisement and religious self-righteousness. The Jed Bartlet image of political Catholicism never told the whole story. If one were to look for Trump’s antecedents in 20th-century America, two obvious figures would appear, both of them Irish-American Catholics.
One is Father Charles Coughlin, the demagogue, anti-Semite and fascist who created an immense following for himself in the 1930s through his use of the great mass medium of his era, radio – just as Trump would later use television to create a public persona. The other is Senator Joseph McCarthy, who fomented the hysterical anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. It is not accidental that Trump picked up McCarthy's techniques of smearing opponents, generating paranoia and lying unconscionably – Trump's mentor, Roy Cohn, was McCarthy's chief counsel.
This far-right strain of political Catholicism was held back somewhat by an obvious handicap: the anti-Catholicism of most of US right-wing politics. American Nativism had always stressed that native meant, not just white and Anglo-Saxon, but Protestant. For example, it might seem obvious that Coughlin's fascism would appeal to the Ku Klux Klan – instead the KKK burned crosses in front of his church. Until 2000, Bob Jones University in South Carolina, an influential hub of right-wing evangelicalism, officially designated Catholicism as a cult.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Trump alone has ended this division among religious conservatives. It has been eroding gradually since the 1980s, as opposition to abortion and to the rights of LGBTQ people have become the defining issues for both right-wing Catholics and Evangelicals.
What Trump has done, though, is to completely cement the cross-sectarian alliance of conservative Christians. He has done this by bringing the right-wing Catholic elites fully into the fold. He has completed an astonishing turnaround, making, through his supreme court appointments, one brand of Catholicism the nearest thing the US now has to a state religion.
Trump has the allegiance of most white Catholics – a whopping 64 per cent of them voted for him in 2016, and there is little sign that many are changing their minds
Ironically, Trump has been able to achieve this precisely because he is so irreligious. No one – even among his own religious supporters – thinks of him as a God-fearing man. But this also means that neither Catholics nor Evangelicals think of him as one of the other crowd. He can hold the arena open for both of them.
So is Joe Biden’s brand of political Catholicism – liberal on social issues and committed to the separation of church and state – now as outdated as The West Wing? Not entirely.
Trump does have the allegiance of most white Catholics – a whopping 64 per cent of them voted for him in 2016, and there is little sign that many are changing their minds.
However, there is also little sign that Trump’s ostentatious embrace of conservative Catholic influence and promotion of Catholic judges to the supreme court has done much to win him new converts. About 47 per cent of all Catholics in the US (including Latinos) are, and remain, Democrats. In other words, the general rule continues to apply – Trump is brilliant at keeping his base, useless at expanding it.
His bet, though, is that this will not matter. The pact between Trump and right-wing Catholics is that, on the one side, he gives them immense influence over the future of the US through the supreme court. And on the other, they keep him in power, whatever the voters want. Through Barr’s control of the justice system and an impregnable majority on the court that will rule on a disputed election, Trump believes that the church’s blessing is of much more than spiritual value.