Trump woos Catholics on abortion but may lose them on life

The president's appearance at this year's March for Life is the kickoff to an expected ‘Catholics for Trump’ campaign that will focus on abortion over immigration, climate change and inequality.

Activists attending the March for Life anti-abortion rally visit the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. As he heads into the 2020 election, Donald Trump will become the first sitting president to address the March for Life when he takes the stage Friday at the annual anti-abortion gathering. The move is Trump's latest nod to the white Evangelical, conservative Christian voters who have proven to be among his most loyal backers. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

(RNS) — President Trump’s appearance at the annual March for Life in Washington on Friday (Jan. 24) — the first time any president has spoken in person at the event — shows how central the issue of abortion is for his reelection prospects. It also reflects how important Catholic voters will be this fall.

The March for Life is officially non-religious, but the most sizable contingent of marchers will be thousands of Catholics from across the country. This year’s march takes place at a time when the Trump campaign is expected to launch a “Catholics for Trump” coalition in the coming months, which, according to media reports, will include making his first appearance at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington in the spring.

While Trump has a seemingly immovable base with white evangelicals, his re-election prospects will hinge on key battleground states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where strong support from white Catholics powered his 2016 victory.

And despite consistent polling that shows that most Catholics broadly support reproductive rights, the thorny politics of abortion are particularly charged at the moment, as Roe v. Wade is more threatened than at any time since the Supreme Court ruling legalized abortion in 1973.

“We are at a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle to make a real challenge to Roe v. Wade, given the possible changes to the Supreme Court,” Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample said recently, in a de facto endorsement that is surely welcomed by Trump’s campaign.

A Tennessee Catholic bishop also described impeachment as “a waste of time” this week and stated he is comfortable with President Trump getting re-elected because the president is “fighting for religious liberty and against abortion.” (The bishop later took his tweet down.)

In November, the American Catholic bishops met to discuss the non-partisan voter reflection guide their conference issues every four years. The hierarchy overwhelmingly approved a document that highlighted abortion as the “preeminent priority” for Catholics.

But being “pro-life” is never a single-issue cause. Several bishops at the November meeting objected to the focus on abortion, citing the more expansive justice framework articulated by Pope Francis, who teaches on climate change, opposition to the death penalty, economic inequality and care for migrants as life issues with much the same urgency as abortion.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Judge Brett Kavanaugh, his Supreme Court nominee, in the East Room of the White House on July 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Trump’s Catholic campaign may tout his record of appointing anti-abortion judges — the president has installed more than 100 judges to the federal bench in addition to appointing Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, both reliable votes to overturn or chip away at abortion rights. But many Catholic bishops and leaders of Catholic agencies play an outsized humanitarian role in aiding immigrants and have strongly denounced the administration’s extreme immigration policies and cruel treatment of migrant families. 

For these Catholics, the president’s xenophobia clashes with their own immigrant history. As late as John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, an Irish-American Catholic running for president was viewed with deep suspicion.

This history and resonant cultural memory could, in part, explain why even some white Catholics who voted for Trump in 2016 seem unsettled by the president’s obsession with demonizing migrants. In 2018 focus groups conducted in Macomb County, Michigan, with Republicans and GOP-leaning independent Catholic conservative men who voted for Trump, the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg described what he called “Trump conflicted Catholics” as particularly anguished over separated immigrant families.

“Everybody’s concerned with the families being torn apart,” one focus group participant said. “You know, to take a child away from a mother or father and put them somewhere where they’re isolated away from their parents.” One voter described family separation as a form of “kidnapping.” 

The Trump administration’s profile on immigration won’t be helped by new visa regulations issued this week, making it more difficult for pregnant immigrant women to travel to the United States.

Pope Francis is unequivocal that the “lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute” are as “equally sacred” as the unborn in the womb. The administration’s gutting of environmental protections, reinstatement of federal executions and shameful treatment of children in migrant shelters demonstrate a callous indifference to the sanctity of life that Catholic voters who oppose abortion should not ignore.

For Catholics, neither political party nor any candidate perfectly reflects our church’s teachings about human dignity and respect for all life. But it’s hard to see how a president who chronically lies, targets communities of color and brazenly ignores the Gospel’s clear command to welcome immigrants has earned the right to be considered the best choice for values voters.

(John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life Action and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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