Now that the election is over, the nation’s attention turns to the Trump presidency. Leaving the stage is an administration that made it public policy to assault religious institutions. Many Catholics supported Mr. Trump in the hope that he could secure the future of the Supreme Court and end the more anti-religious policies of the Obama administration, but they had no way to be certain. He aggressively courted Catholic voters and promised to be a pro-life president, but his past support for all forms of abortion and his continuing enthusiasm for Planned Parenthood raised questions about what he might do in office.
Even if Trump’s victory leads to policies and decisions that Catholics favor, there is no reason to think that it will usher in a golden age for American Catholics. Mr. Trump’s own comments and the larger trends in American politics suggest otherwise. At the opening of the century, federal and state laws protected the institution of marriage, religious institutions conducted their affairs with a minimum of state interference, and no one seriously questioned which bathroom a male or a female should use. Since then, each of these facts had changed: the Obama Administration mandated that all employers in the nation—secular or religious—provide free contraceptive and abortifacient drugs to their employees; in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court discovered a constitutional right to same-sex “marriage”; and in 2016 the Obama Administration issued a directive to require public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom or locker-room that corresponds to each student’s “gender identity.” Public opinion had also changed: by 2016, fifty-five percent of Americans supported redefining marriage. Moreover, in his first major post-election interview, President-elect Trump said on 60 Minutes that he is “fine with” same-sex “marriage” and that he considers it settled law.
The place of Catholics in this changing American political environment is still precarious. Whereas only a half-century ago it seemed that Catholics had finally gained acceptance as part of American society, Catholicism in today’s United States seems to be under attack. What distinguishes the current situation, however, is how American government has changed: government policies increasingly threaten the independence of Catholic and other religious institutions.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
The efforts of the Obama Administration to use executive actions and regulations to advance its social agenda further reveal what has changed in the United States. In the past, disputes largely had to do with whether government should provide aid to Catholic schools. Today, government agencies have broad reach into American life and the activities of civil society, creating new threats for Catholics and their institutions that make the old debates about tax credits for parochial schools appear almost quaint. The Catholic Church in America, and the faithful who adhere to its teachings, now face not just the hostility of anti-Catholic bigots, but also the power of the administrative state.
The Catholic Political Experience in America
The history of Catholics and of the Church in the United States is marked by freedom and success, but also suspicion and even outright hostility. Catholics have lived in America since colonial times and some played key roles in the Founding. Catholics were part of the fabric of the growing nation, but often the subject of enmity from the Protestant majority. Anti-Catholic prejudice was often quite open. Even in the twentieth century, as the faithful scored achievements in all sectors of American society, Catholicism continued to be the subject of suspicion and prejudice. Anti-Catholicism greeted Al Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign, and even John Kennedy’s successful candidacy faced resistance because of his religion. It was not until Ronald Reagan that a president was able to overcome decades of prejudice and appoint an ambassador to the Holy See.
The history of Catholics in the United States is certainly not all negative, but certain patterns have shaped the American Catholic political experience. First, while Catholics certainly have prospered here, no one could mistake this nation for a Catholic one. Second, Catholics should not expect that American culture and policy will be congruent with their values and beliefs; even when American culture was more explicitly religious in tone, that tone was a Protestant one. Finally, as Psalmist said, “put not your trust in princes”: political and social elites generally put their own agendas first, and Catholic concerns are not usually given a high priority in shaping these agendas. In a political system that has grown increasingly centered on policies set by the executive and administrative agencies, Catholics must expect the political-legal environment to being one that constrains—and at times threatens—them.
America’s Administrative State
The U.S. Constitution was designed to create a federal government of limited power that would be held in check by a balance among the three branches. In the twentieth century, that arrangement changed: the power of the federal government came to be seen as essentially plenary in nature, and it is exercised largely through regulations issued by administrative agencies. Instead of a system in which all three branches check and balance each other, today citizens, private institutions, or states and local governments take to the courts to halt or claim exceptions to administrative policies they oppose.
This new arrangement is rightly termed an “administrative state,” because administrative agencies exercise all three types of governmental power: they write rules that have the force of law; they then enforce those rules and bring charges against violators; and most adjudication of administrative violations are heard before administrative judges. Administrative rules are not only the fastest-growing body of law in the United States, but also the means by which some of the most significant and controversial aspects of public policy have been enacted. The “HHS mandate” on contraceptives and the Obama Administration’s guidance letter on bathrooms were both activities of this administrative state.
In the past four decades, this administrative state has come under increasing White House control. In response to the spate of new regulations being promulgated each year by agencies, chief executives of both parties worked to govern rulemaking and to make sure that the rules issued during their administrations better reflected the priorities and preferences of the president. This trend of White House control came to greatest fruition in the two most recent presidencies: Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama managed to bring agency rulemaking under de facto presidential control. There is no doubt that the HHS contraception mandate and the bathroom directive were created under White House influence.
The HHS mandate further illuminates the principle of “put not your trust in princes.” During the congressional debate over passage of the Affordable Care Act, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and some Catholic organizations lobbied in favor of the bill. While working to insure that the bill prohibited abortion funding, the bishops’ conference nevertheless supported the bill in the House and offered to assist the bill’s advocates in the Senate. Ultimately, the USCCB opposed the final bill, because it did not explicitly prohibit abortion funding and included no clause protecting religious conscience. Nevertheless, the bishops had become associated with support for Obamacare. Up to almost the very end of debate over its passage, the bishops worked to help pass the Affordable Care Act.
The announcement of the HHS mandate in 2011 took the bishops by surprise. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, then-president of the USCCB, told the people of the Archdiocese of New York that he had been assured by President Obama that the work of the Catholic Church would not be impaired. Many observers focused on Cardinal Dolan’s implication that the president had deceived him. Others saw Dolan’s surprise as the unfortunate consequence of trusting too much in a political leader. With the Affordable Care Act as law, the Obama Administration was now in a position to issue regulations that advanced the president’s agenda with impunity, save only the government’s ability to defend its administrative rules in court.
President Trump has the opportunity to change these policies, but it highly unlikely that he will be able to dismantle the administrative state. Elections do have consequences, but not as much as many citizens think. The Trump Administration can alter or reverse the more troubling actions of President Obama and appoint judges who are less hostile to religious organizations, but the administrative state’s bureaucratic-judicial power nexus will remain at the center of American government. The Supreme Court redefined marriage even while Justice Antonin Scalia sat on the Court, and executive actions reversed or scuttled by President Trump could be revived in the next administration. In fact, exercises of unilateral president power by Mr. Trump will set precedents for contrary actions by a future president interested in promoting a different agenda.
Catholics can be guardedly optimistic about what the Trump Administration will do, but they must remain cautious. Mr. Trump has made it abundantly clear that his primary interests lay in economic matters and during the primary season he defended Planned Parenthood for “helping millions of women” (other than abortion). He has already proclaimed his acceptance for redefining marriage. While he has promised to be a pro-life president, the available evidence from his life, public statements and policy priorities suggest that life and cultural issues are not pressing concerns for him. A Hillary Clinton presidency would have kept Catholics on their guard, but they should be no less vigilant in the coming four years.
Principles for Future Catholic Engagement
Catholic leaders who worked to support Obamacare certainly acted in good faith, but they erred in trusting too much in political and social elites with very different agendas. Based on this experience, Catholics should adopt a new approach to dealing with politicians in the administrative state. Here are three principles on which to base this new approach:
1) Be neither Amish nor Americanist, but Catholic. Some Catholics are tempted to seek the sort of isolation from the political realm that the Amish practice. Not coincidentally, the Amish are exempt from the mandates of Obamacare, no doubt because their enclosed world presents no threat to the designs of secular elites. Conversely, there is a temptation to go the way of Joe Biden and Tim Kaine, two self-described Catholic politicians who have fully embraced the agenda of secular progressivism. This “Americanist” approach certainly makes political life easier for its practitioners, but like isolation it is not truly Catholic. Catholics are called to be in, but not of, the world; only by engaging in the public sphere as faithful Catholics can they be true to that call.
2) Rely on a politician’s record, not promises. Anyone who looked at Barack Obama’s pre-presidential record in Illinois, in the U.S. Senate, and as a candidate could see that he is fully committed to the secular progressive agenda. Given that record, why should anyone be surprised that his administration has pursued businesses and institutions that resist secularism, from Hobby Lobby to the Little Sisters of the Poor? The USCCB thought it was dealing with an official who was acting in good faith. Like others who negotiated with Mr. Obama, they found that he is true to his agenda before all else. In dealing with political leaders, Catholics should look to the record rather than any promises made to win Catholic support. The test of any presidency will be its deeds, not a candidate’s words.
3) Don’t be in a hurry to advance someone else’s agenda. During the debate on Obamacare, the USCCB and some other Catholic organizations were eager to help advance the agenda of the Obama Administration and the secular left. They lent enthusiastic support to the bill until almost the last minute, not seeing that they had been played by political and social elites who would not honor that support by respecting religious liberty. This principle may seem to counsel excessive caution in joining with others to promote common goals; after all, politics requires coalition-building and compromise. Caution is indeed in order, however. Catholics are outside the American mainstream (whether the old Protestant one or the new secular one), and the nation’s elites will always put their own agendas first.
Catholics will have to accustom themselves to being more on the outside of the political mainstream than they have been for a long time. In the wake of a Trump victory, that is certainly a contrarian notion, but it is not an unwarranted one. The administrative state will not go away soon, and President Trump has his own agenda. So will future presidents, and it is likely that the government will once again be controlled by policy makers who have no qualms about attacking nuns.