John Courtney Murray aside, the United States of America — and the so-called “American Dream” — has often had an uneasy relationship with the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
Indeed, there was an era in which the Church denounced “Americanism” as a heresy, both in the United States and overseas. While it is true that the heretical views could have been named more precisely, it seems clear Pope Leo XIII (one of the foremost defenders of the rights of workers) was worried about American Catholics capitulating to the values of the nation-state rather than those consistent with the Gospel from Jesus Christ.
He had reason to be worried at the time, and he would have even more reason to be worried about an Americanist heresy were he alive today.
Though it seems to be waning a bit now, Catholic support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election was disturbingly high. It was disturbing on multiple levels, but especially because the primary vision for Trump’s campaign was to “make America great again” by putting “America first.”
If accepted and supported by Christians, this is a classic example of heresy — which historically has taken something true and pushed it well beyond its proper place.
For instance, the heresy of Arianism focused on something that was true — the full humanity of Jesus — but gave it such pride of place that it crowded out Jesus’ divinity as a co-equal member of the Holy Trinity.
The heresy of Trumpism also takes something that is true — the goodness of the United States and of patriotism — and pushes to a place where it crowds out the source of our ultimate concern: the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Church.
It is worth noting that some of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in the Christian faith have already used the term heresy to describe the views of Trump and his supporters. Michael Horton argued in the Washington Post, for instance, that Evangelicals should be troubled by Donald Trump’s attempt to mainstream heresy.
Russell Moore not only called one of Trump’s most important Christian supporters a heretic, but he took to the pages of the New York Times to describe the president’s moral life as that of “a Bronze-age warlord.”
In addition to heresy, “Trumpism” is a classic form of idolatry. Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps the most important Protestant thinker of the last two generations, pulled no punches in calling out Trump’s deep faith in Americanism.
For an orthodox Christian, Hauerwas insisted, America cannot be first. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must be first.
Hauerwas was right to describe Trump’s inaugural address as a “stunning example of idolatry.” When the president said, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and, through our loyalty to our country, we will recover loyalty to each other,” this was, using the words of Hauerwas, “a theological claim that offers a kind of salvation.”
Just one problem, though. When made by a Christian, it is an idolatrous and heretical claim.
Christ knew we would come to know people “by their fruits,” and the fruits of a Trump administration are already quite clear. The heresy of “America first” overshadows the Gospel.
Respect the dignity of the person and be skeptical of violence? Nah, let’s reconsider torture and intentionally murder the innocent mothers and children of terrorists.
Steward God’s creation? Nah, let’s dismiss climate change as a Chinese hoax, ignore the world’s ecologically vulnerable, and focus myopically on American short-term economic concerns.
As bad as the Trump administration is, however, this political moment may turn out to be teachable for American Christians. Pope Leo XIII was onto something important when he named the American heresy, but it hasn’t got much traction since that time. Perhaps the blatant heresy and idolatry of “America First” can jolt American Christians into a place where we can look more critically at the place “love of country” has in our lives.
Again, patriotism is a good thing, but it becomes heretical and idolatrous if it comes “first.”
It is one thing to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils. I strongly disagreed with this strategy, but it is defensible from a Catholic point of view. And I fully understand the views of those who did so in defense of prenatal children.
What is not defensible, however, is positive, formal support for “America First.” That so many Catholics have expressed such support, however, may indicate that the time has come to name “Trumpism” a heresy.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University.