Some 2016 Trump critics say record on abortion, religious liberty changed their minds

Some 2016 Trump critics say record on abortion, religious liberty changed their minds

President Donald Trump speaks at the 2020 March for Life. CNA file photo.
President Donald Trump speaks at the 2020 March for Life. CNA file photo.

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During the 2016 Republic primaries, some prominent conservative Catholics warned about Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. Four years later, some say they now support his reelection, while one Catholic scholar told CNA his focus is on the future of American political discourse.

“I have never been more happy about being wrong,” Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, told CNA about Trump.

In January 2016, Burch issued a warning that Trump, who was by then the Republican front-runner, would not uphold Catholic principles as president. Burch exhorted Catholics to support another candidate, saying that Trump would “sell out everyone and anyone when it benefits him.” In the general election, CatholicVote.org did not endorse Trump.

But four years later, Burch told CNA that Trump has delivered “far more than we ever thought possible” on pro-life issues and religious freedom.

In September, CatholicVote launched a nearly $10 million campaign to target Catholic voters, highlighting Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s record “on issues of fundamental importance to Catholics including the sanctity of life, religious liberty, judges, education, the dignity of work, and other core issues.”

Trump has been widely praised by pro-life advocates for his appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic, to the Supreme Court. The president said in 2016 that he would fully defund abortion providers, and sign laws to ban abortions after 20 weeks and make the Hyde Amendment permanent, actions which have not been completed during his term in office.

Burch noted those moves depend upon Congressional action.  “The president’s done what he can via executive order, but he had an unwilling Congress,” he told CNA.

Other Catholics also told CNA last week that Trump’s White House support for life and religious freedom causes has surprised them. They recalled that, early in the 2016 election, his record did not evince a deep grasp of social conservatism.

Trump was on the record in 1999 saying that he was “very pro-choice.” He had been criticized for making crude, sexually-explicit comments about women on host Howard Stern’s radio show and in other contexts.

Looking at those factors in 2016, some critics thought the president’s pledges on abortion would not have much follow through.

“I did not believe his promises on behalf of the unborn, or on judges, or on foreign policy. I thought he would start wars,” Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America, told CNA this month. “I was wrong.”

Pecknold added that he has not endorsed Trump, but he thinks a case can be made for supporting him in the 2020 election.

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie did not believe that Trump would defend life and religious freedom causes, but voted for him reluctantly in 2016 because she thought his opponent Hillary Clinton would “expand” attacks on those causes.

When President Trump dramatically expanded a policy that prevents federal funding of foreign groups that provide or promote abortions—known as the “Mexico City Policy”— Christie said her doubts about him subsided.

As someone who grew up in Latin America, Christie saw Trump’s policy as a victory against “ideological colonization” of groups that promote abortions in developing countries.

“I know that he [Trump] has surrounded himself with really good people,” she said, “who really understand in a deeply philosophical way the issues of human dignity, marriage, and family.”

Nina Shea, an expert in religious freedom at the Hudson Institute, also warned about Trump’s candidacy in 2016. She recalled thinking that he did not have the foreign policy background required to promote religious freedom and defend persecuted religious minorities overseas.

A year later, Shea watched Vice President Mike Pence promise a summit on international Christian persecution that promoting religious freedom would be a priority for the administration.

The direct assurance was a departure from earlier administrations’ seeming reluctance to promote religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy, Shea said. Since then, she noted that Trump’s “speeches, initiatives, and directives” on religious freedom “have set the high water mark” for the issue.

Not all conservative Catholics who opposed Trump in 2016 support his re-election four years later.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review and a Catholic, wrote an Oct. 15 column he said was “a case for principled abstention.”

Ponnuru wrote that in his view, Trump’s “character flaws” are bad enough to “keep him from meeting the threshold conditions to be entrusted with the presidency.”

The president is “deficient” in “judgment, honesty, and self-control,” Ponnuru wrote, lamenting “a more degraded and less honest political culture, the cheapening of the president’s word, and a decline in trust.”

But in the same column, Ponnuru said he would also not be voting for Biden.

Biden “says he now favors taxpayer funding of abortion. He may seek to enlarge the Supreme Court to make room for more justices who won’t make room in American law for unborn children,” Ponnuru wrote.

“If there’s a persuasive case for recognizing abortion as a grave injustice and voting for Biden anyway, I haven’t seen it,” the columnist said, while explaining why he will abstain from voting for a presidential candidate.

George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, helped in March 2016 to initiate a petition urging Catholics to support alternative candidates to Trump during the Republican primary.

Weigel told CNA that he is grateful the Trump administration has defended religious freedom “at home and internationally” and has been “firmly pro-life.”

But the author lamented “continued coarsening of public debate, the deliberate polarization of opinion and sentiment, and the lack of any magnanimity toward opponents.”

Weigel said his focus is on the future. The author said that in his view both Trump and Biden are “seriously flawed in numerous ways.”

“My primary focus now is on building a political culture that doesn't, in the future, produce two such distasteful options. America can and must do better than this,” Weigel told CNA.

In an Oct. 28 column, Weigel pointed to the U.S. Senate as a critical aspect of the 2020 election.

American cultural renewal “will be more difficult if the Democratic party wins the presidency, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives—and is thus able to enforce the agenda of lifestyle libertinism and intolerant 'tolerance' to which its platform commits it, especially in matters of the sanctity of life and the conscience rights of believers,” Weigel wrote.

“As the House will certainly have a Democratic majority in 2021-2022, prudence dictates maintaining a Republican Senate, irrespective of who is elected president,” he added.

Supporters told CNA that after reviewing his record, they think Trump’s policies are a more important consideration than his personal behavior.

“I’m happy with his policies. I don’t plan to have him over for dinner,” Christie said.

Pecknold acknowledged the importance of character in a president, but cautioned that character should not be “reduced to table manners.”

Political leaders, he said, “should be judged by whether their laws help a society to live in greater accord with virtue.”

Tags: Catholic News, President Donald Trump, 2020 Election

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