Racism: Electoral Non-Negotiable

The 2016 election has been unique for innumerable reasons, but perhaps the most unusual is this: a major party nominee is widely considered a racist—and that’s according to senior members of his own party.

Discussion of Donald Trump’s racism is back in the news, since he held a campaign event to admit, finally, that “President Obama was born in the United States, period.” In case you somehow missed it, Trump was the leader for five years of the birther conspiracy, what The New York Times today summarized as “a remarkable campaign of relentless deception that tried to undermine the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president.”

While the birther issue has been the most prominent example of Trump’s racism, it is neither the most blatant nor the most sickening.

Trump has made undeniably racist remarks toward Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a native-born American of Mexican ancestry who is overseeing the fraud case against "Trump University." About Curiel, Trump said he’s a “hater” that cannot judge the case impartially because of his “Mexican heritage,” which gives him an “inherent conflict of interest” against Trump. Party leaders were quick to denounce Trump on this point. House Speaker Paul Ryan, currently the highest-ranking elected official in Trump’s party, said that claiming someone can’t properly do his job because of his race is a “textbook definition of a racist comment.”

The Trump campaign also has had difficulty distancing itself from David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK. Just last week Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence refused to call Duke “deplorable” when asked. Michael Gerson, a leading Republican commentator and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, expressed astonishment and dismay at the Trump campaign’s inconsistency in denouncing the most famous white supremacist in the country. While Gerson doesn’t think that “anything close to half of Trump supporters are motivated by racism,” he says “they are willing to tolerate a level of prejudice that should be morally unacceptable in a presidential candidate.”

An aspiring national leader cannot have a nonchalant stance toward America’s original sin. In Gerson’s words, this “refusal to aggressively confront a racially tinged extremism has been taken as a source of validation by white nationalists. No presidential candidate is responsible for the views of all their supporters. But at least since the 1960s, conservative leaders have felt a responsibility to actively oppose and discredit those elements of the right that identify Americanism with ethnic purity.”

For Ryan and Gerson, opposition to racism is a non-negotiable in electoral politics. The Catholic bishops agree wholeheartedly. This is one aspect of Faithful Citizenship, the guide for forming consciences with respect to American political life, that too often goes unnoticed. Many Catholics assume that the non-negotiables of electoral politics and policy are abortion and same-sex marriage. But the list is longer and more varied across the political spectrum: “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter's intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil” (31, italics added).

Later the bishops include racism among the three examples on which one might consider being a single-issue voter. “A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet if a candidate's position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support” (42, italics added).

The racist attitudes repudiated by Ryan and Gerson offer yet another reason why some conservative Catholic voters, such as Commonweal’s Richard Garnett, can’t pull the lever for Trump. Then again, Faithful Citizenship may necessitate voting for, in Garnett’s words, “neither of the above.”

 

 

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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