In his Crux commentary, “Has the Time Come to Name ‘Trumpism’ a Heresy?” Charles C. Camosy characterized Catholic support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election as “disturbingly high.” Catholic support for Trump could only be regarded as “disturbingly” high, however, if support for Trump is somehow intrinsically evil and incompatible with the faith—a position Camosy in fact proposes.
From his presentation, the sole exculpating circumstance for supporting Trump in 2016 rather than Hillary Clinton, presumably, is the fact that Trump campaigned on a platform that included limiting the evil of abortion rather than expanding it, as Clinton had promised to do.
Camosy goes so far as to say that what Trump advances in the phrase, “America first,” is constitutive of heresy. This is a serious charge, and, it turns out, an erroneous one.
Why? Because, as any well-trained theologian understands, a proposition usually has a context that serves to define the terms out of which it is composed. It is not enough to hear the phrase “America first” and leap to the conclusion that Trump is making a metaphysical assertion that the United States is the Supreme Good toward which all being is directed.
Camosy, however, reads Trump in precisely this way, quoting Stanley Hauerwas as saying that Trump’s inaugural address was a “stunning example of idolatry.” On this reading, “America first” means, “The United States is the summum bonum and takes the place of God.”
While I agree that the claim, “The United States is the summum bonum and takes the place of God” would constitute heresy, I can find no possible justification for such a blatantly eisegetical reading of “America first.”
Why would we actually think Trump intended this meaning? Was the context of the assertion a theological or philosophical treatise, or was it a political event, in which the speaker was assuming a strictly defined political responsibility?
If it was the latter, as I am sure we all agree, then the natural and responsible inference would be that Trump did not intend to make a metaphysical assertion but a practical and political one, related solely to the exercise of the charge he was there to accept.
A metaphysical interpretation of “America first” in this context is simply outlandish and embarrassingly indefensible.
Interpreting Trump’s phrase, then, in the actual context of the utterance, “America first” simply means, “The primary duty of the Federal Government is to look after the welfare of the citizens of the United States, and as the leader of this government, it is my pledge to be faithful to this duty, to safeguard the interests of the citizens of the United States before turning to other concerns.”
That is the obvious reading of “America first,” and not only is it not heretical, it is arguably the only morally defensible position Trump could assume as President.
Trump’s position here — assuming, that is, that the prima facie reading is the correct one — is directly analogous to the position affirmed by the head of a family who says, “My wife and children are my primary charge in life. It’s not that I’m hostile to other families or individuals, nor that I don’t care what becomes of them. It’s not that I’m unwilling to help them to the extent that it is reasonably possible for me to do so. But I cannot attend to their welfare at the expense of my own family’s welfare. To do so would actually be morally wrong.”
Camosy’s bizarre misreading of Trump’s “America first” pledge is not the only problem, doctrinally, with his critique.
He also characterizes his straw-man as a form of the old heresy of “Americanism,” which dates to the late nineteenth century, and which he completely mischaracterizes as an exaggerated and misplaced nationalism, like that associated with the Third Reich — which, once again, has nothing to do with Trump’s “America first” pledge.
In fact, Americanism is a subspecies of modernism. It arose out of concern for the normalization of the situation of Catholics in the American socio-political context, and sought to relax the inherent tension between being Catholic and being a citizen in the United States by prioritizing the internal forum of personal conscience as the sphere of the Holy Spirit in such a way that it could render superfluous or even nullify external guidance from the teaching authority of the Church.
Americanism appealed, then, to the idea that the dogmatic content of the teaching of the Church on faith and morals was subject to change as new advances in secular learning and societal development brought to light the limitations of the Church’s teachings in these areas and recommended new horizons of development, encouraging a great deal of personal liberty in matters of faith and morals at the level of praxis.
Finally, as an implication of the idea of the subordination of the authority of faith to the authority of the secular world and the individual conscience, Americanism involved the idea that the natural virtues could stand on their own without the support of the theological virtues, such that Catholics would appeal to the latter as an aid offered on account of their personal weakness, tacitly suggesting that the most virtuous unbelievers were morally superior to the most virtuous Christians, because the unbelievers lived virtuous lives by the strength of the natural virtues alone, without the crutch of “grace.”
If one wants to accuse someone of “Americanism,” then, perhaps one would accuse John F. Kennedy of it, or Nancy Pelosi, or Joe Biden. But Donald Trump? I do not think he has ever addressed the question, but the other people I named here have done so, and their answers actually have been heretical.
I agree with Camosy that voting for Donald Trump, considered in isolation from the larger context of the real-world options available in the 2016 election, would not have been an obvious move for a conscientious Catholic to make, mostly out of concerns for his personal moral character, but I am astounded at the double-standard here. Hillary Clinton’s personal moral character is at least as suspect as that of Donald Trump, and the platform she sought to advance was rife with per se moral evils.
While clearly, conscientious Catholics are not obliged to agree that Trump’s prudential judgments will always put us on the right political course, the claim, on the part of a Catholic theologian, that we should condemn the imaginary heresy of “Trumpism” is simply irresponsible.
Richard H. Bulzacchelli, S.T.D., is Associate Professor of Theology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee.