I spent time in Baltimore last week in conversation with bishops, theologians, and Catholic social-justice leaders during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall assembly. Donald Trump wasn’t on the official agenda, of course, but what seemed unthinkable just a month ago couldn’t be avoided. A Trump presidency is no longer a bad joke. It’s a stark reality that must steel spines, clarify minds, and dispel any naive notion that we live in normal political times. Our children and grandchildren will ask what Catholic leaders did in the days when the president-elect named as his chief strategist a white nationalist who profited from kicking open the door to America’s dark cellar. The demons that escaped—racism, sexism, and nativism—have long haunted us, but now seem more comfortable in the light of day. Trump didn’t create these evils, but like demagogues down through the ages he exploited fear and division and resentment to consolidate power.
I left Baltimore hopeful, but still restless and unsatisfied.
“We are with you,” Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, said in a message to immigrants who rightly fear that Trump will put President Obama’s deportation efforts on steroids. Especially worrying is that Trump will dismantle the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to receive temporary work authorization and protection from deportation. I’m confident and proud that the church will continue to be on the front lines affirming and giving refuge to immigrants. This is “our identity as Catholics,” Bishop Elizondo underscored. The bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, and people like Sr. Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and Fr. Sean Carroll of the Kino Border Initiative have done heroic work for many years. The church walks the walk when it comes to refugees and immigrants. This Gospel-rooted solidarity only gets stronger when tested by politicians, even those who make it as far as the White House.
While bishops at the national meeting were swift and clear to speak up for immigrants, I still don’t sense enough of them recognize or want to grapple with the fundamental threats a Trump administration poses to the country. There was little sense of urgency when Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the newly elected president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, spoke to reporters at the meeting. Bishops, we were told, will work with the new administration on areas of agreement and navigate areas of disagreement. “Low-energy” is how Trump may have described his tepid response. On a certain level, this is an expected and reasonable answer for someone who will be sitting down with the president-elect and his team. Bishops are pastors but they are also CEOs who manage large, complex institutions. We should expect them to prudently maintain a network of relationships with political and civic leaders across the ideological spectrum. A certain realpolitik is inevitable.
But compare the lukewarm, scripted answers some bishops gave to reporters asking about Trump with how the bishops reacted to a just elected President Obama in the fall of 2008. The contrast is stark. Eight years ago, bishops stepped up to the microphone during that year’s bishops’ conference public sessions with dire warnings. “This body is totally opposed to any compromise,” one bishop said. “We are dealing with an absolute,” said another, “there is no room for compromise.” Others called for a “war” against abortion, and urged the church to adopt a “prophetic” voice. (See Commonweal’s November 2008 editorial in response to these outbursts, “The Bishops & Obama,” for more.)
It was hard to find this moral outrage and sense of determination last week. Church leaders need to wake up and recognize the need for a prophetic Christian witness. If not now, when? The “alt-right” leader Steve Bannon, alluded to previously, is now the president-elect’s chief adviser, thrilling white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Bannon was raised in an Irish Catholic family. He addressed a Vatican conference in 2014. Earlier this year, he argued the Catholic Church welcomes immigrants only to pad its numbers because “the church is dying in this country.” Bannon should be feeling pressure from Catholic leaders. If he doesn’t, the normalization of extremism that we saw in the presidential campaign will only continue in the White House. Let’s be clear: “alt-right” and even “white nationalism” are euphemistic ways of describing racist movements that must be stopped.
A few days after the bishops met in Baltimore, the innocuous sounding National Policy Institute convened hundreds of people with supremacist views inside the decidedly establishment confines of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. Young men wearing business suits sported “fashy” (as in fascist) haircuts. Agenda items included “Trump and the New White Voter,” and “America and the Jewish Consciousness.” Richard Spencer, who takes credit for coining the term “alt-right” and has argued for a whites-only “ethno-state,” organized the meeting. Attendance this year more than doubled from previous years, according to news accounts. Spencer, who leads the National Policy Institute, sees an opening with the Trump administration. “An awakening among everyone has occurred with this Trump election,” Spencer said during his opening remarks. “We’re not quite the establishment now, but I think we should start acting like it.” The Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups have tracked a disturbing rise in hate crimes, a flurry of them coming in the days after Trump’s election.
Facing these challenges, the bishops and other Catholic leaders will need to respond with creativity and courage. They have prioritized religious liberty issues over the past several years, and that commitment is about to be tested. The bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaigns, for example, largely directed at the Obama administration, were high-profile efforts that entail significant financial and institutional commitments. Now that a Trump administration poses grave threats to Muslims, bishops must speak out clearly on religious liberty grounds. The old script just won’t do. When is the “Fortnight” for Muslims?
Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who is advising Trump’s transition team, told Reuters that proposals are being considered for creating a registry for Muslims from foreign countries. Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Preibus, downplayed the idea but told NBC’s Meet the Press that the administration would not “rule out anything.” Trump’s choice for national security advisor, Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has frequently disparaged Muslims. He describes Islam as a “political ideology” that “hides behind being a religion,” and once called it a “cancer.” A CNN investigation found that Flynn has frequently engaged with anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic extremists on Twitter. In a July New York Post op-ed, Flynn called the Muslim world an “epic failure” compared to “the superiority of the West.” A spokesman for the pro-Trump Great America PAC even cited Japanese internment camps during World War II as a precedent for how the new administration could justify a registry for Muslims.
How can Catholic and other Christian leaders who care about religious liberty be silent in the facing of growing Islamophobia? As I’ve argued before, Catholics have a particular historical experience with religious bigotry that should make church leaders sensitive to the clear and present danger Muslims face today. Catholic bishops will likely find common ground with the Trump administration on religious liberty issues as they relate to opposing contraception funding in Obamacare, same-sex marriage, and policies the Obama administration has promoted to protect transgender people. But if Catholic bishops don't show up in a strong, visible, and consistent way for our Muslim brothers and sisters in faith, any claims to defending religious liberty will ring hollow and look hypocritical.
Now is the time for faith leaders to remember that speaking truth to power might cost you access in Washington or a big check from a donor, but a failure to act has a far higher moral cost. Trump’s ascendency is a wakeup call. History teaches us that silence and complacency are no better than complicity.