Russell Shaw: ‘There was plenty of ignorance and hard-heartedness in this election’

Russell Shaw: ‘There was plenty of ignorance and hard-heartedness in this election’

Russell Shaw whose book on Catholics in America is published by Ignatius Press (picture: Kresta in the Afternoon)

What does Tuesday's election tell us about the integration of Catholics into American life? The evidence is mixed, according to a veteran journalist who recently authored a book on that very topic. Russell Shaw spoke to Kathryn Jean Lopez.

It appears that it took a combination of Democrats overplaying their hand on abortion and other extremism, anti-Catholicism leaks from the Clinton campaign, and the erratic non-politician person of Donald Trump to finally unclench Catholics from voting for Dems, despite Catholic cover in a vice-presidential nominee.

While I didn’t vote for Trump and worry about his sincerity on some of the issues that were decision makers for some Catholics who have the likes of abortion weighing heavily on their conscience when going to vote, if this marks the possibility for some real competition for the votes of Catholics among the parties, this is a good thing for democracy.

What did happen with Catholics on Election Day and how is it significant? Russell Shaw, a veteran journalist and author of the recent book Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor, shares some insights in an interview.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: In your book Catholics in America you write that “We are nearing the point at which the American culture of which Catholics for so long have wanted so badly to be part replicates the culture described in a vivid passage of Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.” You quote from Ronald Knox’s translation: “Their minds are clouded with darkness; the hardness of their hearts breeds in them an ignorance, which estranges them from the divine life; and so, in despair, they have given themselves up to incontinence, to selfish habits of impurity” (Eph 4:18-20). Did this election cycle resemble this to you? Is there a danger that Catholics and other people of faith take the wrong lesson from the Trump victory?

Russell Shaw: There was plenty hardness of heart and ignorance in this election. About incontinence I wouldn’t know, except that it was frequently discussed. As for wrong lessons from the Trump win, I put self-righteousness at or near the top. I saw one website that called Trump voters “faith-filled” and I suspect that’s a common view in some circles. The implication is that Clinton voters had no faith. But lots of faith-filled people voted for Clinton in the sincere belief that, flawed as she was, she was less flawed than Trump. If ever there was a prudential judgment, it was the choice between these two.

What of the desire to be a part of the culture? Has that been achieved? For good? For ill?

Most American Catholics are thoroughly assimilated into the culture, and Latino Catholics are working on it. Assimilation has many socioeconomic advantages of course, but it also has contributed to a thinning-out of faith and an alarming loss of religious identity. There are something like 80 million Catholics in the United States, but fewer than one in four goes to Mass on Sunday—better than in Western Europe but still pretty bad. Time and again, too, Catholics’ views on social issues are in conflict with the teaching of the Church. Look at people like Joe Biden and Tim Kaine and Nancy Pelosi.

The book poses the question: “Can we still be fully Catholic while also being fully American in American secular terms?” You mention that “The response of many Catholics today is simply more assimilation into the values and the behavior patterns of the society that surrounds them.” And you add that there is “a remnant of believing, practicing Catholics” who “find themselves increasingly alienated from the secular society” and are “deeply concerned to know what to do about it.” Is there a clear winning side in Trump’s victory? Where does that leave the remnant? Did the reality of Catholics in America change with the election of Donald Trump as president?

According to exit polls, 52% of self-identified Catholics—and 60% of white Catholics as a group—voted for Trump. Among weekly churchgoers of all denominations, 56% backed Trump. But there also were not a few practicing Catholics (and I’m one) who didn’t vote for either Trump or Clinton. I don’t have numbers on the Catholic remnant, but I suspect many either chose that option or else backed Trump. I doubt that many were for Clinton.

What do you make of Catholic identity in politics at a time when while Catholics may have made a difference with Trump, even pro-life Catholics were split with such prominent intellectuals as Robert P. George opposing both Trump and Clinton?

It seems clear that Trump came out as he did on abortion and nominations to the Supreme Court as a way of pleasing social conservatives, who include a substantial number of Catholics. To that extent, Catholics, along with Evangelicals, carried significant weight in this election. But other Catholics were just part of the crowd. There is, however, one enormous exception—Latino Catholics, who voted 67% for Clinton in reaction to Trump’s views on immigration and immigrants. Catholics who might have wanted to back someone who supported the Church’s stands on issues across the board just didn’t have a candidate.

You write about Archbishop Fulton Sheen that he “never wavered in his certainty that Catholicism held the answers to just about everything.” Everything? Does anyone seem to emanate that kind of confidence today?

I find that same trait of super self-confidence in Pope Francis. Perhaps he sometimes overdoes it, but it undoubtedly is central to his effectiveness as a leader.

What’s the Obama presidency’s legacy from a Catholic perspective? And what do Hillary Clinton’s and Tim Kaine’s (a Catholic) defeat mean?

Unfortunately, the legacy from the Church’s perspective is that the White House no longer has qualms about trying to ram policies offensive to Catholic conscience down our throats. The HHS Mandate and compulsory cooperation with same-sex marriage are two conspicuous cases in point. Religious liberty is being redefined as freedom to pray as you want, but when it comes to public policy—watch out. A Clinton-Kaine administration would have taken this approach. Trump made promises during the campaign not to do that. Whether he will keep those promises remains to be seen.

With no professing Catholic in the White House, does that give Catholics in Congress and throughout public and civic life added urgency to better work out “how to apply moral principles grounded in faith to real-world politics”?

Catholics in public life have that duty with or without a professing Catholic in the White House. Unfortunately, we may be in for still more partisanship and legislative stalemate in Congress than we had in the Obama years. And an environment like that does not provide a lot of opportunity for applying faith-based principles to politics. But people with a vocation to politics are obliged to try, and the rest of us have an obligation to support them.

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