‘Catholicism is right at the heart of epic US presidential election’


Sir, – I would largely agree with what Fintan O’Toole says (“Catholicism is right at the heart of epic US presidential election “, Opinion & Analysis, October 3rd) about American Catholicism and its alliance with Donald Trump, with Protestant evangelicalism and – although he does not mention this – with a new commitment to the idea of Israel as an exemplary political community. Two states led by shady people; now the relation between church and state is being reconfigured in both.

The role assigned to Edmund Burke, Ireland’s greatest political philosopher, has been crucial to this political debate since the early 1960s. Jesuits, religious conservatives, and journalists and TV personalities (William F Buckley the best-known) have used and abused Burke’s attacks on the French revolution as a model for their own assaults on modernity and liberalism as threats to their version of the ideal Christian state. Burke’s writings were, in addition, carefully warped to caricature any state or system that might be regarded as a threat to the US Christian-capitalist domination of the globe. Once the bible belts and the sun belts merged to produce the new Republican presidential heroes – Nixon, Reagan, the two birds in a Bush – the “enemy within” began to emerge. “God and enemies” is what the Christianity of this paranoid disposition sought, at home and abroad. Biblical fundamentalism increased the crazed sense of the oncoming Last Days, secular notions of the end of history, after the fall of the Soviet Union, reinforced the apocalyptic convictions of a population that was increasingly encouraged (from Fox News to fake news) to act in a furious vigilante spirit. Endless wars, cultural and military, have been the consequence and religion increasingly looked to for justification and therapy. The orthodox separation between church and state began to appear constitutionally frail and psychically damaging.

That continues today, now in a fresh spasm of propaganda (as in the new series of “think tanks”, sponsored by fundamentalist conservatives, that light up in linked alarm signals across the metropolitan landscape). The titles of newly influential works are weather-vanes for their themes: Why Liberalism Failed (2016) by the Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen (not our Fr Dineen!), the 2017 essay A Christian Strategy by the Catholic convert and Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, or The Virtues of Nationalism (2018) by the Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony. In this political pandemic, infection is widespread.

Burke is sought out again, always the big political name to invoke in a civilisational crisis, the philosophical equivalent of a universal vaccine, already available via the Irish Catholic distribution network for decades and now affordable to all. (Certainly, as intellectual analyses go, it is cheap.) Hazony’s latest think-tank is, alas, named the Edmund Burke Foundation. Poor Burke. The famous Dubliner with the Irish brogue is in for yet another high-speed American spin-cycle. He’ll probably come out of it looking like, maybe even sounding like, Trump. But the saving trace of his Irish accent, we may hope, will survive.

And, of course, here we have the burgeoning alliance on several social issues between the DUP and the Catholic Church, a miniature sample of what is going on in the US and Europe. As they say at Notre Dame football games, “Go Irish!”. – Yours, etc,


(Emeritus Professor,

University of Notre Dame),

Dublin 8.

Sir, – Fintan O’Toole, as always, writes with insight and eloquence on questions of church and state but there is an error of emphasis in his account of the convergence of conservative Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism in the United States.

Overwhelmingly the most important issue bringing these two tendencies together is abortion. The Supreme Court ruling in Roe v Wade in January 1973 effectively legalised abortion across the US. Right-wing Catholics and right-wing Protestants haven’t let up since in efforts to reverse the ruling. They have had some success in slicing and dicing the decision state by state. The ultimate objective of each is to achieve a majority in the Supreme Court for reversing the judgment. They may well believe they are within striking distance. This is the reason they have fervently come together now, all the doctrinal differences which each once insisted damned the other to hell having been quietly set aside. Prior to Roe v Wade, it would have been inconceivable for Protestant evangelicals to applaud the appointment of a Catholic to the Supreme Court. But they stood together aglow with satisfaction in the Rose Garden last week to celebrate the arrival of Amy Coney Barrett to a lifetime position of judicial power.

There are other issues involved, of course. But what unites conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants in the US today is a determination to deny women the right to control their own bodies. – Yours, etc,



People Before Profit,


Sir, – I have greatly enjoyed Fintan O’Toole’s article. However, Fiorello La Guardia should not be listed among Italo-American Catholic politicians: he was a Protestant, a practising Episcopalian, of Jewish ancestry. – Yours, etc,


Sidney Sussex College,



Sir, – I very much enjoyed reading Fintan O’Toole’s article. However, I think that he may have somewhat “overegged” the pudding. Irish Catholicism has been a force in the US political scene for at least a century and a half. However, over that period, the “Irish” population in the US has grown from being “hewers of wood and drawers of water” to a much more balanced community which includes high-performing doctors, lawyers, senior military and corporate officers, etc. In doing so, many members of this population will have become wealthy and probably more conservative and, as a result, increasingly drawn to support and vote for the Republican party. This phenomenon is also at work in the UK where many successful Irish vote Tory and, whisper it, may even have voted for Brexit!

I would venture to suggest that the large number of President Trump’s acolytes with Irish surnames has more to do with this than with any personal loyalty to the president. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 13.

Sir, – Fintan O’Toole notes that William Barr can be an Irish-American Catholic despite his non-Irish surname, but he seems to assume everyone with an Irish surname is an Irish-American Catholic. It is true that many of those around Mr Trump have Irish names, but in America, as is increasingly true in Ireland, that doesn’t tell you as much as it once did. Kellyanne Conway (née Fitzpatrick) was raised almost entirely by her Italian-American mother in a largely Italian-American community. John Kelly may seem quintessential Boston Irish, but more of his ancestors were Italian than Irish. And Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser whose name Fintan O’Toole adds to his list, has been a Mormon his entire adult life.

Fintan O’Toole suggests a close association between Irish-Americans and the conservative Catholicism that is quite cosy with Trump. Yes, Cardinal Dolan gave the invocation one evening at the Republican convention, but it is equally noteworthy that Fr James Martin, an editor of America magazine and a champion for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church, did the same at the Democratic convention. And yes, Notre Dame University is the academic home of Amy Coney Barrett, but her judicial philosophy and her “brand” of Catholicism mark her as atypical among her peers in the faculty and in the university at large. Tellingly, the small city in which the large university is located, South Bend, twice elected Pete Buttigieg, whose father taught at Notre Dame, as mayor in 2012 and 2016.

Donald Trump probably thinks the clear majority of Irish-Americans are conservative Catholics who can be confidently placed in a tidy box and delivered to him. And truth be told, Fintan O’Toole, perspicacious as he is, has a weakness for the schematic. Happily, things are messier on the ground. – Yours, etc,