By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
I have some friends and family members who supported Bill Clinton, even after the Monica Lewinsky scandal became public knowledge. I would imagine that many conservative Catholics are in the same boat, considering the longstanding links between urban Catholics and the trade unions and the Democrats’ image as the party of “the little guy.” I never “scolded” the people I knew for their vote, limiting my remarks to explanations for why I opposed Clinton.
But I must admit that, in my private thoughts, I was disappointed in their willingness to vote for a man who had behaved so shamefully in sexual matters. I couldn’t believe it when I heard them repeat one version or another of the line, “Everyone lies about sex.” Or, “We’re not electing a preacher-in-chief, we’re electing a president.”
Because I never confronted my friends and family members about their support for Clinton, I never got an explanation for how they were able to overlook his behavior. But I think I now know what they said to themselves. My hunch is that it is something comparable to what I said to myself when I voted for Donald Trump, a man whose past sexual indiscretions may be a little less shameful than Clinton’s, but not by much. (I trust we don’t have to make a laundry list comparison to support that contention.)
What I said to myself when I voted for Trump was that, in spite of all the sleazy aspects to his character, he was the best chance we had to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House. It was the familiar lesser-of-two evils argument. Clinton’s stand on abortion and the homosexual agenda were key factors in my decision. I think that practicing Catholics who voted for Bill Clinton felt the same way; that they believed voting for him was the only way to ensure that Republicans would not set back the liberal agenda, which liberal Catholics see as a vehicle for making the world a more Christian place.
To see what I mean, consider the recent comments of Sr. Joan Chittister, the well-known liberal social activist member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa. She told reporters that being “pro-life” meant more to her than opposition to abortion; that in her eyes it meant being an activist about matters such as ending the death penalty, reducing the proliferation of guns in our culture, environmental stewardship, and working for the Democrats’ favored social programs:
“I do not believe,” she said, “that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
You can see why Chittister and Catholics who think as she does were able to support Bill Clinton. She was willing to overlook the accusations of promiscuity made against him in order to advance the social programs that she believes will bring about social justice. It is the same calculation that Catholics who voted for Trump made when they looked the other way on his history in matters of sex. They said to themselves that if it takes a cad to keep the Clintons and their agenda out of the White House, so be it.
I hope no one is misreading me. I am not saying that Sr. Chittister and her ideological allies are correct in creating a moral equivalence between stopping abortion and protecting the welfare state. I don’t think that; I think it is muddled thinking. And I don’t think that she and her allies are correct in assuming that those who oppose wasteful and counterproductive welfare programs are motivated by a lack of compassion for the poor.
My point is only that liberal Catholics who backed Bill Clinton were making a trade-off between backing an individual with an unsavory character and saving the social programs favored by liberal Democrats.
OK, OK. Why am I going to all this effort to make excuses for liberal Catholics who supported Bill Clinton? Because I am wondering why liberal Catholics aren’t making a comparable effort to understand why fellow Catholics voted for Donald Trump; why they, instead, continue to characterize Trump’s voters in the same manner as Hillary Clinton when she spoke of a “basket of deplorables”? Check out publications such as America and Commonweal if you think I am overstating my case. Read the comments of Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who called for a “disruption of Trump’s America.”
One must assume that Sr. Chittister is familiar with the principal of subsidiarity articulated in the social encyclicals, which calls for us to assign power to the central government to deal with social problems only after we have determined that private agencies and local levels of government are incapable of the task.
Why then does she assume that conservative Catholics are not seeking to do what is best for the poor in other ways than the Democrats’ centralized welfare state, rather than finding a way to avoid taxes?
Why does she proceed as if someone who argued that the poor were helped more by the expanding economy during the Reagan years than by the increase in welfare programs and expanded use of food stamps during the time Barack Obama was in office, is lying? That is what she means, isn’t it, when she says, “I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there.” What else can that mean?
Sr. Chittister is entitled to make the argument that those who look back favorably on the Reagan years and the application of supply-side economics are mistaken in their calculations, and that things did not improve for the poor during that time. Fair enough. She should get out the bar graphs and the pie charts and make the case. But it is not fair to simply assume that their “morality is deeply lacking” and that they are motivated by greed. Doing that is a cheap shot; maybe un-Christian, if the charge is made with sufficient reflection.