Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has long been outspoken when it comes to the intersection of religion and politics. He’s particularly opinionated during election years. When John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, ran for president in 2004 Chaput was among a handful of bishops who argued that abortion should be the defining issue for Catholic voters, a stance that effectively relegates other grave threats to life—poverty, war, torture, and capital punishment—to the peripheries. Four years later, the archbishop publicly rebuked a pro-life Catholic who served in the Reagan administration, along with Catholic social justice groups, for “doing a disservice to the church” because they made the case that Obama’s policies, writ large, would serve the common good and help reduce abortions.
The archbishop is now weighing in again with his unique brand of political analysis. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have “astonishing flaws,” he writes in an archdiocesan column last week. The current political polarization is “depressing,” Chaput says, but also presents a moment of opportunity because honest voters can see through partisan “tribal loyalty chants.” The archbishop is correct that our political system is broken. Both candidates and parties have obvious flaws. Anyone with eyes to see knows this. It’s not exactly breaking news. In most elections, the archbishop’s pox-on-both-your houses critique would attract hardly a glance.
This is not a normal election year.
Donald Trump’s toxic candidacy is sui generis, a grave threat to basic democratic norms and ideals, Christian values, and the common good. In this context, the archbishop’s astonishing false equivalency is irresponsible and even morally dangerous. Both Trump and Clinton, he insists, are “so problematic that neither candidate is clearly better than the other.” Archbishop Chaput somehow manages to never mention that Trump has demonized Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” branded all Muslims as suspicious, boasts that he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness, embraces torture, intimates violence against his opponent, and clashed with Pope Francis over immigration. On the other hand, he reminds us that “a lot of people” believe Hillary Clinton “should be under criminal indictment.” The archbishop also argues that both candidates are so wealthy neither can understand the real lives of most Americans. This is an odd assertion given that one candidate has spent his entire career enriching himself at the expense of workers, genuflects at the altar of his own brand, and thinks “you have to be wealthy in order to be great.”
It’s not just religious progressives sounding the alarm about Trump. The election has become a crisis of conscience for many Christian leaders on the right. Prominent conservative Russell Moore, who leads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has repeatedly warned that Trump is a walking affront to the Gospels. Several high-profile conservative Catholics like George Weigel and Robert George, who have been public supporters of Republicans in past elections, describe Trump as “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States” and underscore how his “appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice are offensive to any genuinely Catholic sensibility.” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, not exactly a leftwing commentator, warned in a Daily News op-ed last summer that the kind of xenophobia Trump peddles is part of a long history of ugly nativism that once considered Catholics dangerous to democracy. The fact that the Philadelphia archbishop mentions none of this, and only gives a passing nod to what he calls Trump's “bombast and buffoonery,” is as bewildering as it is disturbing.
The archbishop has a right to position abortion as a focal point for Catholic voters, but being pro-life, as Pope Francis reminds Catholics almost daily, doesn't stop with life in the womb. The pope has been clear that “an economy of exclusion” that “kills,” along with climate change, capital punishment, and a globalization of indifference that leads to the death of migrants are all fundamental life issues. In fact, Pope Francis warns that reducing the fullness of Catholic social teaching to a few hot-button issues is problematic. The church must never, he said early in his papacy, “only insist on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraception methods.”
Trump’s candidacy isn't about politics as usual. Something much bigger is on the line than Republicans or Democrats taking a victory lap on election day. The soul of our democracy is at stake. A growing number of Americans across the political spectrum recognize this clear and present danger. It’s a shame Archbishop Chaput doesn't seem to be one of them.