As Election Day approached 60 years ago, Catholics across the country followed the news with a nervous thrill of anticipation. For them, the final stage of a long struggle was at hand: An Irish Catholic was poised to become president of the United States, ending the historic Protestant monopoly on the White House — and on mainstream, middle-class respectability.
They knew that John F. Kennedy’s victory — and theirs — would not come easy. The Sept. 8, 1960, issue of The Catholic Transcript had reported a small portion of the widespread effort to undermine his chances on account of his faith: “In Missouri,” the paper warned, “Sunday sermons throughout the rugged ‘Bible Belt’ are being directed against Catholics,” while others circulated leaflets warning of a potential “Catholic militia” and the impending conversion of all public schools into Catholic schools.
Despite those ferocious rumors and others, Mr. Kennedy won. But in one of history’s many strange reversals, Catholics’ midcentury success set the stage for white Catholics’ indifference — even active opposition — to the potential election of America’s second Catholic president, Joe Biden.
At the time of Mr. Kennedy’s candidacy, American prejudice against Catholics sprang from two distinct but related fonts. Its oldest source was ideological. The American Republic was founded upon the ideas of liberal thinkers who looked askance at Catholics. John Locke, one of liberalism’s founding fathers, proposed that since Catholics were faith-bound to respect only governance that comported with their religion, they were due no toleration in liberal states. The notion that Catholics made for strange citizens in liberal democracies caught on — and was not entirely ridiculous.
The Catholic Church is a curious creature: An international, bureaucratic, modern institution containing one billion of the world’s faithful and a host of pre-modern ideas with no particular preference for liberalism. At America’s founding and for generations later, Catholics were suspected of the worst sins of illiberalism: dogmatism, anti-intellectualism, tyranny, malice. And yet, Catholics were also responsible for articulating some of the best critiques of liberalism, citing callous individualism, gross inequality, exploitation and indifference as some of the philosophy’s excesses.
This mixture of tendencies — obedience to an ancient, hierarchical order on one hand, radical opposition to some of society’s most oppressive forces on the other — makes little sense in a liberal context. As the historian Jefferson Cowie wrote of the pious Catholics who helped usher in the New Deal, “In a way that particularly confounded many liberal and left commentators, these men and women could be deeply Catholic, active, even militant, trade unionists, and reject much of secular, liberal thought, while they simultaneously supported core economic aspects of New Deal policy.”
The oddity of Catholic thought in the American context fed the other wellspring of anti-Catholicism in American life: a racialized form of ethnic bigotry.
“There was still this tinge of ethnicity that clung to” Catholics, Maria R. Mazzenga, the curator of American Catholic History Collections at Catholic University’s library, told me. “They were weird, foreign, dirty, oddly ritualistic.” Catholics in the 1950s and 1960s were easy to distinguish from their wealthier white Protestant counterparts and were excluded — think “No Irish need apply” — from much of public life.
The discrimination was neither as severe nor as formal as bigotry against Black Americans, but it was enough to divide Protestant and Catholic America into nearly separate societies, with white Protestants controlling much of the political, economic and social opportunities.
“And Kennedy cut that wall down,” Dr. Mazzenga said.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” the soon-to-be president said in a poignant address to the all-Protestant Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960, “where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”
With his emphatic embrace of liberalism, he laid those hoary ideological objections to Catholicism to rest; with his sophisticated comportment and demeanor, he slew the remainder. Catholics could present themselves for election to public office without suspicion, and they could confidently call themselves members of the white middle class.
“Capturing the presidency was putting the cherry on top of this movement into the American middle class,” Peter Cajka, assistant teaching professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, told me. Since then, he said, “Catholics have become more assimilated into middle-class American whiteness, losing their ethnic base.” Thus they became, with some exceptions, indistinguishable from white, Protestant America. In other words: They got exactly what they asked for.
“One of the things that I have found interesting over the years,” Greg Smith, associate director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, told me, “is that if you look at Catholics’ opinions about a variety of political issues, what we see very clearly is that Catholic partisans tend to express opinions that are more in line with the positions of their party than the positions of their church.” When it comes to abortion, Republican Catholics favor bans in most or all cases; where it comes to an expanded border wall, they’re very supportive. The reverse applies for Catholic Democrats, though Pope Francis has spoken emphatically against abortion and in favor of migrants and refugees. Mr. Kennedy’s speech in Houston was prescient indeed: No prelate, dead or alive, seems capable of influencing American Catholics’ politics now.
Indeed, censure by official church figures means little to Catholic politicians of either party. In 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published several letters it had written to the heads of congressional committees, calling upon Congress to heed the tenets of the faith in shaping the federal budget for 2013 — specifically, to refrain from slashing funds for food stamps and other welfare programs. Representative Paul Ryan, a vocal Catholic, misrepresented and then ignored them. In 2008, Bishop John Ricard wrote an open letter to then-Senator Biden to question, in the gentlest terms, whether he ought to receive communion given his opposition to abortion restrictions. Bishop Ricard was joined by a number of other bishops in short order, and Mr. Biden was refused communion as recently as last October for that very reason. As in the case of Mr. Ryan, none of it has changed a thing.
And this is as much a result of what those hopeful Catholics of 1960 gained as what they lost.
The Catholic right has hasn’t lost political purchase — on the contrary, several wealthy, right-wing Catholics are vocally supportive of Mr. Trump, including Kenneth Langone, the billionaire behind The Home Depot, and Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza. All five justices in the conservative majority of the Supreme Court were raised Catholic.
It’s just that the Catholic right is no longer recognizably Catholic. Its politics are more or less identical to those of the other members of the right-wing Christian coalition. A Pew poll conducted in August found that roughly 60 percent of white Catholics plan on voting for Donald Trump — identical to the number of nonevangelical white Protestants who plan to vote for him.
What remains of the Catholic left has met an even more debilitating fate. “F.D.R. brought Catholics into the Democratic Party in large numbers,” Dr. Cajka said, referring to the stunning 70 percent to 81 percent of the Catholic vote Franklin Roosevelt won in 1936, “and they brought their social-justice, living-wage beliefs with them, and that was the high-water mark for Catholic-inflected policy that would really affect a redistribution of wealth. Since then, Catholicism has gone with the neoliberal drift.”
Though he likes to compare himself with Roosevelt, Mr. Biden is loath to be associated with anything like the radicalism of the New Deal, once implying that even if Congress passed “Medicare for all,” he would veto it as president. Small vestiges of the sensibilities that created and sustained the intensely pro-poor, activist politics of early-20th-century Catholicism still exist, but the pro-labor, anticapitalist threat the Catholic left once posed to the political establishment has greatly waned.
Mr. Biden could look to the example of Pope Francis as a model for a kind of Catholicity that is both pious and challenging to the powers that be — if he, or anyone else, were interested in that sort of thing. “Biden has the opportunity to really capture what a post-Vatican II Catholic identity looks like,” Dr. Mazzenga observed. “He has an opportunity to talk to liberal Catholic groups fired up by anti-racism activism, anti-gun activism, environmental activism. But he’s not doing it.” Dr. Cajka agreed: “A good, Pope Francis Catholic should be posing a threat to the American ruling class,” he said. But Mr. Biden’s track record is anything but radical, even where it comes to labor unions, war and Social Security.
Which is to say that he is an ordinary Democrat — more or less his explicit pitch. Perhaps Catholics have earned the right to no distinction, the privilege of blending seamlessly into the social and political landscape of the United States, the freedom of having no special moral obligations. And what a wide, barren, featureless liberty it is.
Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.
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