Letter from America


A Scot who has lived in America for many years reflects on the presidential campaign and the intersection of religion and politics in contemporary America.


I am composing this two days after the presidential ‘debate’ with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and six days before the vice-presidential one with Tim Kaine and Mike Pence.  As a partisan of Bernie Sanders, and with an ‘Are you out of your mind?’ reaction to the very idea of voting for Donald Trump, I thought Hillary did fine in the debate.  Unlike ‘the Donald’, she gave specific answers to the moderator’s questions, while he mostly stayed with the generalities of the stump speech he has been giving for the past year.  Surprisingly there were no questions asked about immigration, his signature issue, or his most infamous riff, building a wall at the Mexican border which Mexico will have to pay for.  Unless the next two debates are staged as farce, the questions must be asked.

In the vice-presidential debate, it will be interesting to see if there are any questions about the candidates’ religious affiliation and its influence on their respective political and economic beliefs.  Both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine started out in life Catholic, but in college Pence converted to nondenominational evangelicalism.

After his first year at Harvard Law School, Kaine spent nine months in Honduras with the Jesuit lay volunteers, teaching at a technical school.  Like Barack Obama, he has practiced civil rights law and taught law, in Kaine’s case at the University of Richmond, Virginia, and had a long political career in city and state politics.  He became Mayor of Richmond and Governor of the State, before his present position as the junior Senator from Virginia in the U.S. Congress.  Fluent in Spanish, he was the first member of Congress to give a speech on the Senate floor entirely in Spanish, in support of a bi-partisan compromise pro-immigration bill, doomed to failure as the presidential election neared.  He and his wife have been parishioners for years in a multiracial downtown Richmond parish, and Kaine is not shy to recognise his Catholic background, including his lay missionary time in Honduras, as the source of his commitment to social justice.  At the same time, he did not let his personal opposition to the death penalty and abortion prevent him from signing death warrants as Governor of Virginia, or from refusing to try to outlaw all abortions.

Mike Pence, the present Governor of Indiana and former Republican Representative in Congress, is a Tea Party Republican who previously worked as a lawyer and a political talk radio show host. He has strong ties to the Koch brothers, who have funded the extreme right wing and libertarian takeover of the Republican Party with a clandestine, decades long project to legislate policy changes in states all over the country favourable to their agenda (ALEC – American legislative exchange council).  It includes climate change denial and protecting their fossil fuel and other business interests.  They have created a revolving door network of politicians like Pence and his aides, lobbyists, public relations and political propaganda merchants and think tank operatives.

Pence came to national attention last year in a bizarre episode where he appeared on national television from the Indiana Capitol, surrounded by nuns and clergy in full traditionalist habits, when he signed into law a ‘Religious Freedom Restoration Act’.  It would have allowed business owners to invoke their religious freedom to refuse to serve people who violated the owners’ personal religious opposition to, for example, same-sex marriage.  A week later he had to sign a revised version when major corporations, organisations, and celebrities threatened to boycott Indiana.

He clashed with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the state capital, when he halted state support for efforts to relocate refugees from war torn places like Syria.  The archdiocese defied him by welcoming a Syrian family to the city.  In the end, he said that while he disagreed with the archdiocese’s action he wouldn’t block food stamps and other state aid for the family.  So, while he has continued to burnish his reputation from his days in Congress as a ‘culture warrior’, he has shown in this and on other occasions that he is not quite as extreme as some other crusaders, like Ted Cruz, who got away with shutting down Congress for two weeks.  Pence reluctantly supported him in the Indiana primary.

We can see in these candidates the fraught nature of the intersection of religion and politics in contemporary America.  By the time you read this, you may or may not have seen and heard it stated by them in some way in their debate.  So far religious hierarchies, including the Catholic bishops, have hardly been quoted in this campaign, unlike past campaigns, especially when they were denouncing Catholic candidates who refused to pass their only litmus test, absolute antiabortion.

I may or may not return to these matters for discussion in future issues of Open House.  For the present, I recommend an excellent editorial in the prestigious American lay Catholic magazine Commonweal’s September 9th issue, ‘Why Hyde Matters’, on the abortion issue and the need for a nuanced but principled approach.  I also refer to the interesting experience of the proposed November 2012 statement on Catholic Social Teaching by the Bishops’ Conference that failed to pass by the required 2/3 majority, after it was denounced by a retired archbishop for its failure to mention the 1986 pastoral letter on the economy and Catholic Social Teaching, or the fundamental issue of support for labour unions.

I think it is interesting that this year, just over a month out from the election, the episcopal silence is deafening.  I have attended only one relevant talk all year, on racism and white supremacy in the context of this presidential election, from a religious leader, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, in April.  For the first time in American history, one of the candidates promises to build a wall along the southern border, deport twelve million undocumented people, and for over a year has fomented racism and xenophobia, supported by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, one of whom presently heads up his campaign.  I trust the bishops, like me, are praying that candidate does not succeed, because if he does I believe the bishops and all religious people may have to be reminded of the famous words of concentration camp survivor, Pastor Martin Niemoller, on the complicity of religious leaders and people by silence before political danger: ‘First they came for….’  When I am inclined to dismiss the existential threat Trump presents to the U.S. and the world, by referring to his buffoonery and ‘reality TV acting up’, I remind myself of the facts.  While I can’t bring myself to believe Trump himself is a dangerous man, he has set off a movement that has that potential, and some of the people around him, white supremacists and neo-Nazis, are truly dangerous.  God help us if Trump wins in November.

Michael O’Neill is a retired defence attorney. 


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.