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Exploring, questioning, experiencing non-literal faith


John Haldane

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The end of coervice liberalism?

US Presidential elections often involve oddities and upsets. In 1992 I stood in an Ohio field watching George Bush Sr's campaign train, Spirit of America, grind to a halt and the president emerge to be greeted by a man dressed as a chicken - a recurrent and effective tactic referencing his refusal to debate with Bill Clinton. Eight years later, I sat in a labour union hall watching the returns from Florida flip to and fro between Al Gore and Bush Jr only to be resolved by the US Supreme Court a month later in favour of ‘G Dubya’.

The point of the nickname was to mark the Texan pronunciation of 'W', and it was in Waco, Texas, at Baylor University, a few miles from Bush's Prairie Chapel Ranch, that for the last three months I watched the intensi­fying drama of this year's presidential cam­paign and its undoubtedly historic result.

My election week was busy. On the eve of the vote I flew back to Waco from the annual meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association in San Francisco, and later in the week I took part in a public conversation on faith and politics with Robert George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton. On the Friday, I flew to Notre Dame University, Indiana, for a conference of the Center for Ethics and Culture, where other speakers included Alasdair Maclntyre, Mary Ann Glendon and Roger Scruton.

I mention these names to give a sense of the regional, political and cultural range and intensity of discussion I have been listening to - and the fact that much of it has been with Christians, and specifically with Catholics. It is too early to give predictions - and Donald Trump's fitful character prohibits them - but it is not too soon to give some impressions of what is happening in America and how it may relate to opinions in its Catholic communities.

The press and pollsters got things as wrong as they did because they had little under­standing of and no feel for middle America; which is less a geographical than a cultural designation. Head west or north of the Washington Beltway into Virginia or Pennsylvania and one soon enters ‘middle America’, which extends largely uninterrupted for over 2,500 miles all the way to the California valleys. It includes thousands of towns and hundreds of cities, and now it is all shaded red, the colour of the Republicans. Amid it, and on the coasts, lie a few heavily populated blue islands, as the Democratic vote contracts into the major metropolises.

Talk of a ‘divided USA’ is obviously correct, but the commentators' assumption was that traditional America would eventually follow the progressive trend of New York, Los Angeles and other leading cities, or else rot away like the steel mills, car plants and factories of the rust belt that runs from New York State to Wisconsin. That analysis is now in question.

Self-styled ‘progressive liberal USA’ is aghast that an ignorant, oafish, misogynist should have secured 60 per cent of the states, and is inclined to think this proves Hillary Clinton's claim about millions of Americans being ‘irredeemable deplorables’. But that misses the more lately point that many people voted for 'Thump in spite of his obviously rep­rehensible character.

An initial analysis by the Pew Research Center calculates that 52 per cent of Catholics (rising to 60 per cent of white RCs) and 58 per cent of non-evangelical Protestants voted for him; the figures for Clinton are 45 per cent and 39 per cent. Among white evangelicals, it was 81 per cent to 16 per cent 'Trump also secured 58 per cent (to 37 per cent) of white non-Hispanic voters, 49 per cent (to 45 per cent) of whites with college degrees, and 53 per cent (to 43 per cent) of white women.

Anecdotally, my impression from talking to lower- and middle-income people in Texas and elsewhere is that they think Trump is rough and tough but discount the former in the hope that the latter will enable him to take on vested political interests and halt, if not reverse, the 'progressive' social agenda.

In the Presidential debates, he generally came off worse as regards knowledge and tem­perament but Clinton conveyed an impression of entitlement, superiority and condescension to those she regarded as morally unenlight­ened. A critical point came in the final debate when the moderator asked: 'You have been quoted as saying that the foetus has no con­stitutional rights. You also voted against a ban on late-term, partial-birth abortions. Why?'  To which she replied: 'I do not think the United States government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions?'

Trump had said he would appoint pro-life justices to the supreme court and Clinton's uncompromising reply elicited the fiery response, ‘Well, I think it's terrible. If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.’ Abortion continues to divide America but there is evidence of a growing desire for restrictions and some legal balancing of the rights of foetus and mother. This exchange suggested she disregards that trend.

That and her seeming intent to use the law to restrict the scope for religious consci­entious action cost her support among educated Christian& Catholic academics and others of my acquaintance generally felt they could not vote for Trump but also lacked enthusiasm for his opponent. My sense now, however, is that while they still doubt his capacity for competent and caring leadership, they also feel there may be the possibility of political rebalancing.

In the coastal cities, post-tribal Catholics tend to share the outlook of their social class, but elsewhere among church-going Catholics - and increasingly among commit­ted Catholic college and university students -there is a turn towards moral conservatism in thought and practice. For all those people, the defeat of Clinton represents hope for free­dom from coercive liberalism.

It has not gone unnoticed that Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and Kellyanne Conway - the first woman to manage a suc­cessful presidential campaign - are both committed pro-life Christians: Pence is a con­servative evangelical and Conway a Catholic. The likely leading cabinet members Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani are also, to some degree, in that camp. These facts may be in the mind of the US Catholic bishops as they gather this week for their Fall Assembly in Baltimore.

Meanwhile back at Notre Dame, an unex­pected issue looms. In 2009, in response to opposition to the decision to confer an hon­orary degree on Barack Obama, the good and well-intentioned ND president, Fr John Jenkins, wrote to that year's graduates, 'Notre Dame has a long custom of conferring hon­orary degrees on the President of the United States. It has never been a political statement or an endorsement of policy. It is the University's expression of respect for the leader of the nation and the Office of the President.'

Will that custom, which includes the recip­ient giving the commencement address to new graduates, be maintained in respect of Donald Trump? And if it is not, can it later be resumed in favour of some other candidate without that decision appearing as a political statement or endorsement? This is not an issue that has yet attracted the attention of the media, but it is just another awkward aspect of an extraordinary election that may change the course of US history.

John Haldane is J. Newton Rayzor Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, Texas, and professor of philosophy in the University of St Andrews.

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