In recent elections, casting a vote for president has been a straightforward matter for Phyllis Woods. The former Republican representative from Dover, N.H., an observant Catholic who is strongly opposed to abortion, said the Republican nominee has always represented her values.
But this year?
“Oh boy. Wow,” she said. “Our religious leaders, as well as all of our pro-life people, are all over the board, in dismay. Every place I go, people say, ‘Who are we going to vote for? What are we going to do?’ ”
She says they’re not tempted to vote for Hillary Clinton, a Democrat who champions abortion rights and defends Planned Parenthood. But she said they’re struggling over whether to back Trump, who Woods has long seen as “mocking and disrespectful and insulting,” as well as less qualified than his primary rivals.
The release of an explosive 2005 videotape in which Trump spoke in crude and sexually aggressive terms about women has only deepened fissures among cultural conservatives. So have the accounts of several women who subsequently said Trump assaulted them in the past, allegations Trump denies.
Some evangelical leaders urged voters to look past Trump’s offensive behavior.
“Five years from now when we’re sitting here and we see all the Constitution being ripped apart by justices (appointed by Clinton), nobody is going to remember what horrible things Donald Trump said over a decade ago,” Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, said last week, according to the Religion News Service.
Others criticized that kind of thinking.
“Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord,” wrote Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham, in a sharply worded editorial entitled “Speak Truth to Trump.” “They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us — in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.”
And a backlash against Trump, especially among evangelical millennials and women, seems to be building.
A group of Liberty University students published a scathing response to Falwell, writing that Falwell’s “we’re all sinners” line of argument sounded “as if sexual assault is a shoulder-shrugging issue rather than an atrocity which plagues college campuses across America, including our own.”
Thus far, white evangelical Christians have made up a crucial block of Trump’s base. A PRRI/The Atlantic survey of likely voters taken Oct. 5-9 — which included the day the videotape surfaced and two days of fallout — found that 65 percent of white evangelicals still favored Trump, compared to just 16 percent backing Clinton.
But the evangelical community is increasingly diverse — racially, theologically, and otherwise. And in a recent petition, scores of evangelical leaders said they “simply will not tolerate the racial, religious, and gender bigotry that Donald Trump has consistently and deliberately fueled.” The petition now boasts more than 20,000 signatures on Change.org.
A Barna Group survey published before the women’s assault allegations arose found that although evangelical Christians overwhelmingly prefer Trump to Clinton, four in 10 would not commit to either candidate, and 1 in 8 said they planned to vote for a third-party or independent candidate. Barna said the dissatisfaction with the major party nominees “is unique over the course of the last nine election cycles.”
Many Roman Catholics are equally distressed about choosing between Trump, who has cast Mexican immigrants as rapists, and Clinton, who wants to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prevents the federal Medicaid program from paying for abortions.
“If you think the unborn ought to be protected and the undocumented ought to be welcomed, it’s not obvious where you ought to go,” said John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.
Catholics whose political views align closely with the church’s social teachings often feel politically homeless, scholars said. Neither party fully captures the church’s opposition to abortion, the death penalty, and gay marriage, as well as its commitment to welcoming immigrants and caring for the poor.
Accordingly, Carr said, the Catholic vote normally splits about 40 percent Democratic and 40 percent Republican; the remaining 20 percent, he said, is “the last swing vote in America.”
But Trump has alienated many Catholics, an increasing percentage of whom are Hispanic. The PRRI/The Atlantic survey showed him lagging 21 points behind Clinton among Catholic voters.
“I don’t think any Catholic can countenance the kind of language that Trump uses to categorize immigrants and women,” said Mathew Schmalz, a religious studies professor at the College of the Holy Cross.
The Rev. James Bretzke, a theologian at Boston College, said that given the immense political and legal challenges involved with banning abortion, and given data showing abortions have actually been fewer in Democratic administrations, “I don’t think you can make a credible case that if you are pro-life you have to vote Republican.”
He pointed to Pope Francis’ advice to US voters earlier this month — “Study the proposals well, pray, and choose in conscience.”
“He’s saying ‘Vote your conscience,’ ” Bretzke said. “He is not saying, as some of the bishops and certainly many right-wing priests are saying, ‘A correctly formed Catholic conscience can only vote for Trump.’ ”
Republicans, however, are pouncing on internal Clinton campaign e-mails newly released by WikiLeaks that include a 2011 conversation between Clinton’s current communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, and a fellow at a liberal think tank, John Halpin.
In the exchange, Halpin scorned conservative Catholic converts as enamored of the church’s “severely backward gender dynamics.” Palmieri, who was then working for the Center for American Progress, replied that they must see Catholicism as “the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion” adding: “Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is Catholic, said the Clinton campaign’s “disdain for the Catholic faith and Christian evangelicals is staggering.”
Jean B. Healey of Braintree, a Catholic who left the Democratic Party years ago over its support for legalized abortion, said she is so dismayed by both Clinton and Trump that she’ll probably support Libertarian Gary Johnson, who says he’s personally opposed to abortion but believes government should stay out of the issue.
She has supported Republicans in recent elections, but Trump, she said, “doesn’t have the dignity, doesn’t have the humility, he doesn’t have the sensitivity of the needs of the people. The fact that he discriminates against women, against black people — he’s just not a good person.”
But a number other Catholics for whom abortion is a major concern said in interviews that they would stick with Trump.
“I compare the video” of Trump talking about grabbing women’s genitals “to a video I have seen of an abortion,” said Sharon Keefe, an anti-abortion activist and observant Catholic from Wilmington. “I compare it to 59 million lives already lost that nobody seems to care about.”
Woods, too, has resigned herself to supporting Trump in the hope that he’ll follow through on his promise to choose Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and because she admires his running mate, Governor Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian.
But with polls showing support for Trump eroding, Woods is worried.
“We have so many people that are qualified and talented and gifted from which to choose,” said Woods, who supported Scott Walker and then Marco Rubio in the primary. “And we chose the one who does not have those qualities.”