As Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office as the 45th president of the United States, some Catholics expressed hope on what his new administration might do on pro-life, religious liberty and educational opportunity issues, while others expressed concern about his actions on immigration and health care, as well as the tenor of the recent campaign, might coarsen public debate.
Like many of their countrymen and women, Catholics interviewed by Crux were divided on what the real estate magnate’s rise to the presidency might mean for the nation. According to exit polls after the November 8 election, 52 percent of Catholics voted for Trump, while 45 percent voted for his rival, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
“I’m filled with hope,” said Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican member of Congress from New Jersey who is Catholic and known for his pro-life and human rights stances.
Smith told Crux that the pro-life movement “dodged the greatest bullet ever” in Clinton’s defeat, because in his view, she posed an “existential threat” to federal and state abortion restrictions, with the Democratic party platform even opposing the well-established Hyde Amendment preventing federal funding of abortion.
A Clinton presidency, he said, would have continued the Obama administration’s “aggressive promotion of abortion in all foreign aid.”
“I can’t tell you how important it is we cease funding the abortion industry overseas, like Planned Parenthood here,” he said, noting that legislation will again be introduced in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the United States.
Smith said he also believes that Trump as president “will restore the enforcement of conscience rights for Catholic health care workers and institutions,” and he also noted the impact the new president could have on selecting Supreme Court justices and other members of the federal judiciary.
Trump has promised to nominate a new Supreme Court justice to replace the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who would reflect Scalia’s views on the Constitution. Scalia along with other conservative justices ruled against abortion when that issue came before the high court.
“The hope would be he would pick justices as he’s promised to do, who would protect life and not take it,” Smith said.
Smith said he would soon help introduce the No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act in Congress that would make the Hyde Amendment’s abortion funding restrictions permanent.
That bill, he said, would also take abortion funding out of the Affordable Care Act, no matter what happens with the new president and Congress’s efforts to repeal and replace the controversial program popularly known as Obamacare.
The veteran legislator said that with a pro-life president and a majority pro-life Congress, he also expects passage and approval of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act that would ban abortion after 20 weeks.
Smith said he also expected the new administration to resolve the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate dispute with the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Catholic institutions.
The Little Sisters and other groups faced massive fines for not including coverage for contraceptives, abortion inducing drugs, and sterilization procedures, in their employee health insurance plans, which they contended would require them to violate Church teaching. The Supreme Court had remanded the case for the parties to work out a resolution.
“The government should not be in the position to coerce consciences,” Smith said.
On another religious freedom issue, Smith said that he believes the new administration will be more responsive to the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, whom the State Department last year recognized as being victims of genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State.
Just before Christmas, Smith visited a refugee camp near Erbil, Iraq. “Their faith is strong,” he said, but he added that many refugees said they felt abandoned by America.
On Jan. 18, the same day that Smith was interviewed by Crux, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, the chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter to members of Congress urging that efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare not endanger Americans’ access to health care.
“A repeal of key provisions of the Affordable Care Act ought not to be undertaken without the concurrent passage of a replacement plan that ensures access to adequate health care for the millions of people who now rely upon it for their well-being,” Dewane wrote.
President-elect Trump and Republicans in Congress have said that repealing and replacing Obamacare is their top priority.
In a recent interview with Crux, Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, expressed the same concern that Dewane raised in his letter, that efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a plan to replace it could endanger the access to health care for the estimated 22 million Americans who gained health insurance coverage for the first time under the program.
Neither Trump nor the Republican leaders in Congress have announced their replacement proposals, but Smith told Crux that he’s confident that measures will be put forth to continue and improve health care access.
Another contentious issue for the incoming Trump administration has been immigration.
As a candidate, Trump promised to build a wall along the United States’ southern border with Mexico, and he also pledged to crack down on illegal immigration, especially on immigrants who have committed crimes in the United States.
He said that anyone entering the country illegally is subject to deportation. The United States now has an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
A few weeks after the presidential election, more than 100 leaders of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities signed statements of support for the more than 750,000 undocumented students now protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program.
“There’s so much uncertainty… there’s a lot of anxiety in the immigrant community” in the United States, Jeanne M. Atkinson, the executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), told Crux two days before Trump’s inauguration.
CLINIC, founded in 1988, works with more than 300 independent nonprofit agencies throughout the United States, many of them affiliated with the Catholic Church, in providing legal services to immigrants.
Atkinson said it is worrisome that some of Trump’s key aides, including adviser Steve Bannon, and his nominee for U.S. attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) are known for their hard-line stances on immigration.
“We also know campaign soundbites are not policies. That’s where I start pulling a little hope,” she said. “In a TIME magazine interview, the president-elect walked back the threat to DACA and said we would do something good for the people brought here as children.”
That statement, she added, “gives us some hope…From a Catholic perspective, we would argue against tearing apart families.”
Atkinson said CLINIC has recommended that its affiliates in these uncertain times redouble their efforts to educate the immigrants they serve on their legal rights and protections.
The work of CLINIC, she said, is rooted in the biblical tradition of welcoming the stranger and also the Catholic Church’s history of building churches, schools and hospitals to welcome successive waves of immigrants who sometimes faced discrimination in the United States.
“Our own history is of welcoming immigrants. You see the face of Christ in everybody, that’s why we do this,” she said.
She believes immigration reform – which has been a political football in Washington for many years – “would have to protect families, (especially) the most vulnerable. They could be refugees, or unaccompanied minors at our southern border.”
Immigrants include the people praying in the next pew at church, and the people living and working in our communities, she said.
“They’re us. It’s not an us or them (question). We’re talking about our neighbors…We should welcome them in our society. It’s better for our families, our community and our country – it strengthens all of it,” Atkinson said.
At a recent Georgetown forum on the upcoming Trump presidency, Rep. Francis Rooney, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See who is now a new Republican congressman from Florida, emphasized the need for a humane immigration policy while also underscoring the importance of the nation having secure borders.
Like the pro-life and religious liberty issues, education policy offers another area where many Catholics might find common ground with the Trump administration.
Thomas Burnford, the president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Assocation – whose members include 150,000 educators serving 1.9 million students in Catholic schools and educational programs across the United States – hopes that Trump’s presidency can help usher forth more educational opportunities for the nation’s children.
This could be done through initiatives like voucher programs and educational tax credits, which provide funding that parents can use to send their children to Catholic or other nonpublic schools.
“We believe strongly that parents have a right to choose a school that’s best for their kids, so we’re encouraged by the Trump Administration’s proclaimed support of school choice programs. I look forward to seeing what happens,” Burnford said.
The NCEA president noted Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, “has a proven history of supporting school choice, which if such programs are enacted, level the playing field, especially for parents of limited means.”
Burnford added that “school choice, particularly in urban areas, can help families access the best education available.”
He noted the success of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded voucher program, which according to studies has a high rate of parent satisfaction and involvement and high graduation rates for students.
Steven Krueger, the president of Catholic Democrats, told Crux that his group has many concerns.
“Our message has basically been, don’t despair. We have to act, but act out of love. That’s a Catholic response,” he said.
Krueger expressed anxiety that negative aspects of Trump’s campaign – including some comments and actions seen by critics as being vulgar, sexist and xenophobic, and statements that some perceived as lacking truthfulness or a regard for facts, “will become increasingly acceptable or normalized in our society, as others (might) follow suit.”
The head of Catholic Democrats also expressed concern that some of President Trump’s policies might adversely affect “the most vulnerable and oppressed people and communities in our society, including immigrants, Muslims, women and those in need of physical or mental health care.”
Krueger worries that tax cuts for the rich might increase inequality in the country, and hopes that the new president will not “pursue an arms race and by his words and actions put our nation at unnecessary risk of armed conflict or war.”
Trump’s effort at “making America great again,” he added, should include “the protection of our environment and our connectedness to it, particularly the poor, as a foundational building block.”
Krueger also hopes the Catholic Church “can play a role in bridging the political divide in our country and be part of the solution to the divisions that we face…”
Jay Shepard, a member of the Catholic Advisory Group for Trump’s presidential campaign, owns an ad agency with his wife Eileen in Vermont. He told Crux that he is looking forward to President Trump’s leadership, and the couple will be attending the new president’s inauguration.
“The pro-life issues and religious liberty are tremendously important to us,” he said. “His protecting of Catholic institutions and the rights of individuals to practice their own faith is extremely important.”
Shepard said Trump is misunderstood on the immigration issue.
“He truly has concern for immigrants, and he also has concern for the rule of law,” said Shepard, who believes that Trump during his campaign demonstrated an understanding and empathy for what suffering people go through.
“He’s taken a bad rap for being anti-immigrant. It’s the rule of law he supports,” the Vermont business owner said.
Shepard said he has hopes that Trump can unite the country. “I think America will come together once they understand what his heart is like and the direction he wants to bring the country (in),” and that will bring people together, he said.