Faith & Politics in the Age of Trump

By David Micali '21 | March 28, 2018

Flaherty and Fehrnstrom on stage

On March 26, Peter Flaherty and Eric Fehrnstrom spoke about two conversation topics that many people carefully avoid: religion and politics.

Peter Flaherty was Governor Mitt Romney’s Campaign Manager for his 2008 presidential run and Senior Advisor for Strategy for his 2012 presidential run. Currently, he is Co-founder and Principal of Esplanade Strategies, a public affairs and political strategy consulting firm.

Eric Fehrnstrom served as Communications Director for Governor Romney from 2003-2007, Senior Advisor to Governor Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and most recently earned a theology degree from Boston College. Together, the two colleagues talked about faith, politics, and what this combination means in the age of President Trump.

According to Flaherty and Fehrnstrom, there are two ways of dealing with faith and politics. The first way, the separatist way, was used by President Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign. The American public was worried how the first Catholic president would run the nation in regards to his faith. President Kennedy took a separatist approach in that he “completely disconnected religion from public life.”

In 2008 and 2012, the nation once again worried over how the first Mormon president, Governor Romney, would run the nation in regards to his faith. According to Fehrnstrom, Governor Romney took more of an “accommodationist” approach when it came to religion, emphasizing shared values between Mormons and Protestants. Mr. Fehrnstrom told the audience that Donald Trump, a Protestant, has also taken on an accommodationist approach when it comes to religion and politics. 

Another idea discussed by Flaherty and Fehrnstrom was why “values voters” support Donald Trump despite certain aspects of his personality and past that would seem to discredit him from the support of these voters. They argued that in the 21st century, this group of voters care more about a candidate’s agenda than his personal values. They argued that as long as Trump delivers on his promises, "values voters" will continue to support him.

According to Flaherty and Fehrnstrom, another reason why "values voters" continue to support Donald Trump is that other parties have “no home” for them. For example, Fehrnstrom told how an op-ed was written in the Wall Street Journal by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic Archbishop of New York, in which he said that the Democrats have shut out Catholics. The most surprising fact about the piece, according to Fehrnstrom, was not that a major archbishop wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, but that the Democrats did not respond to it. Fehrnstrom believes that until the Democrats start focusing on values voters, these voters will continue to support Republicans.

Flaherty and Fehrnstrom went on to talk about how Trump performed with different types of religious voters during the 2016 presidential election. According to their data, Trump did better with Evangelicals (winning 81%-16%) and Catholics (52%-45%) than both Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, who was an Evangelical. Donald Trump did not do as well with Hispanic Catholics (losing 67%-26%), and he is unpopular with American Jews; however, he is extremely popular among Israeli Jews.

Finally, Flaherty and Fehrnstrom talked about the relationship between President Trump and Pope Francis, saying that they have a surprising number of similarities. They both are reformers who are anti-bureaucratic and reject cultural norms. However, Flaherty and Fehrnstrom agree that there are still “more differences than similarities” between the two.