Trump at the Al Smith Dinner: No Laughing Matter

The quadrennial Al Smith Dinner offers the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates a brief respite from the campaign and a chance to toss some good-natured lines at each other, usually balanced with self-deprecating jokes. The white-tie event, set for Thursday at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, raises money for charitable causes and is, as the New York Times describes it, “a major social gathering on the American political landscape.”

Maybe I’m just irritated because I can’t afford the cheapest ticket ($3,000), but the idea of watching Donald Trump yucking it up with the cardinal of New York in a room full of wealthy Catholics turns my stomach. Trump’s improbable 2016 success has been made possible, in part, by the normalizing of a candidate who has inspired white supremacists and who has drawn from the toxic well of demagoguery. What message does it send to voters to have Cardinal Timothy Dolan chuckling alongside a candidate who demonized Mexicans as rapists, proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the country, mocked a disabled reporter, called Pope Francis “disgraceful,” and bragged about sexual assault?

The Catholic Church should play no part in the mainstreaming of Donald Trump.

Trump has argued that “you have to be wealthy in order to be great.” He makes an idol of his own power, riches, and ego. Perhaps he forgets that the Son of God was born homeless in a dusty outpost of the Roman Empire. Christianity is and will always be a religion for “losers”—the despised, the outcast, the refugee. These are the men, women, and children Trump fears, mocks, and treats as threats to our country.

Cardinal Dolan knows the dangers of Trumpism. In a Daily News op-ed in July, he recounted the vile history of anti-Catholic nativism in this country and strongly condemned the modern-day strains directed at a new generation of immigrants. “I wish I were in the college classroom again, so I could roll out my ‘Trump card’ to show the students that I was right,” he wrote. “Nativism is alive, well—and apparently popular!” Breitbart Media, the right-wing outlet whose former chairman now runs Trump’s campaign, blasted Dolan’s commentary as a “political hit piece” and found a Catholic priest willing to defend Trump. “I offer an apology on behalf of so many Catholics who are outraged by the dirty politics of Cardinal Dolan,” Fr. Marcel Guarnizo wrote in an ugly rant that warned of the “social unrest that lax immigration laws” are causing in Europe.

The Al Smith Dinner is named after the former governor of New York who in 1928 became the first Catholic to run for president, losing in a landslide to Republican Herbert Hoover. Raised in a tenement on the Lower East Side [*], Smith was attacked for his faith at a time when Catholics (particularly outside of urban centers) were viewed with suspicion and animus. Writing in Politico last week, Terry Golway captured the tensions that will be bubbling alongside the fancy drinks at the Waldorf Astoria:

In some ways, the very idea of Trump attending a dinner in honor of Smith, a man slandered as dangerous because he worshipped God in ways the majority population found offensive and un-American because he lived in a place filled with foreigners, is absurd. There is likely nothing in Smith’s story that Trump finds interesting or inspiring, save that later in his life the former governor got rich, moved to a huge apartment on Fifth Avenue, and said some pretty nasty things about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

I’m sympathetic to the prickly situation Cardinal Dolan finds himself in. Refusing to invite the political headliners for an event that raises considerable money for charity—and perhaps can inject at least a dose of civility into the polluted river of this campaign—is not ideal. Every four years, it seems, New York archbishops are under pressure from prolife Catholics who object to giving a platform to a prochoice presidential candidate.

In 2012, Cardinal Dolan took heat from Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life for not excluding then-candidate Barack Obama from the banquet. Pavone argued that “the polite putting aside of differences for a while amounts to scandal,” adding that “there comes a time when enough is enough and we can no longer give people a reason to doubt our position as a church.” Pavone is one of several Catholics on Trump’s Catholic advisory team, and it’s unlikely he sees any irony in that statement now. There is precedent, however, for withholding invitations. In 1996, Cardinal John O’Connor didn’t want to give prochoice Bill Clinton a platform. In 2004, Cardinal Edward Egan made the same decision because John Kerry, the Democratic nominee and a Catholic, supported abortion rights.

I’m glad I’m not in Cardinal Dolan’s shoes. His joke writers have an unenviable task. Let's hope at least some of his punch lines make Trump think as much as they make him laugh. 

* An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Smith was an Irish immigrant.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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