Msgr. Owen F. Campion
Without fail, when any national election nears, political analysts debate which way will go the ''Catholic vote.''
Arguably, there has never been a ''Catholic vote,'' if this means that all American Catholics have voted in lockstep in every national election. This is not to say, however, that majorities of Catholics, often heavy majorities, have voted one way or the other on occasion, and twice in history these majorities were extraordinarily great.
Regardless, certain factors rather constantly have guided Catholics in their choices about voting.
Survival has been first and foremost, and survival has meant the personal financial ability to withstand the tossing and tumbling of the national economy.
Then, still today, although maybe more yesterday, Catholic voters in America have been influenced by the wish to exist without duress in an American society so colored by traditional, Reformation-bred Protestantism and by anti-Catholicism.
Within this second factor has been the everlasting yearning of Catholics in this country to be accepted by the wider American community, acceptance assumed to be the path to greater participation in the commonweal.
In this yearning, Catholics scrupulously have avoided being seen as different, or even as acting differently.
For two centuries, reacting to all this, just to survive, Catholic citizens at times obliquely, but at other times directly, deliberately have gone out of their way to display their patriotism. Certainly they have, without pause, lived with, and indeed on occasion embraced, social attitudes, or laws, such as slavery, the various harshly discriminating immigration policies, aggressive military actions, and racial segregation, even though pronouncements even by Catholic Popes have decried such realities as contrary to revelation.
These circumstances have made easy the constant American Catholic regard for the separation of church and state, and actually for a translation of this amendment that sweeps far beyond the document itself to the idea that religious values must be excluded from public policy, and that any citizen who speaks personal religious views aloud, or tries to apply them to public policy, is out of place.
Coincidentally, but not to be diminished as a factor, Catholics, until modern times often less educated, have not responded so well to abstract philosophical arguments, especially when these arguments have been at odds with the prevailing general culture.
Exceptions to all this have occurred. Political issues have differed. Feelings have been more or less intense. Politicians have had different approaches and different personalities.
Two exceptions were in 1928 when a Catholic, New York Governor Alfred Emmanuel Smith, ran for the Democrats, and 1960, when another Catholic, Massachusetts U. S. Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was the Democratic candidate.
Al Smith was a lifelong, practicing and devout Catholic. Descended from recent Irish immigrants, once an altar boy in his native parish in downtown Manhattan, he certainly had no quarrel with Church dogma.
Protestants were the majority in America in 1928, and they ran America. For many, Smith's candidacy brought to center stage old fears of Catholicism.
To win, Smith planned to take the large Eastern and Midwestern states, where Catholics were more numerous, and to keep in line the Democrats' ''Solid South'' at a time when every Southern politician elected to any office from dogcatcher to governor was a Democrat.
Smith's religion was the main issue in the South where, outside Louisiana, there were few Catholics.
For his running mate, he selected Arkansas U. S. Senator Joseph T. Robinson, a Methodist, former Arkansas governor, the Senate's Democratic leader, liked and trusted on both sides of the aisle, and close to Democratic politicians across the South.
Lo and behold, Robinson's own minister in Little Rock spoke out against Smith, joining a cavalcade of Protestant clergy across the country, Maine to Oregon, who stood in pulpits to question, hysterically at times, Catholic Smith's loyalty to the Constitution.
Amid it all, Catholic bishops remained silent, a silence interpreted by American Catholics as validating the policy of live and let live and, by extension, support for the concept that religion and politics do not mix.
In reply to it all, Smith pledged that no bishop would tell him what to do as President. This response also reinforced the thought about drawing a line between religion and political policy.
Catholic Americans, understandably seeing themselves as under attack, in a combination of nervousness and outrage, fought back on Election Day by flocking to Smith.
However, the Catholics' votes were not enough, indeed not nearly enough. Smith lost the industrial states, winning only Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Humiliatingly, he lost five of the eleven states of the old Confederacy, five states that had voted Democratic continually, and by landslide percentages, since Reconstruction.
The Smith debacle, spread all across the country, focused Catholic insecurities. The election also created a taboo among politicians. No Catholic could ever be elected nationally.
In 1932, Smith's successor as New York's governor, an Episcopalian, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ran for the Democrats. Times had never been worse.
Roosevelt took 43 of the 48 states, in the first of his four presidential victories. A majority of Catholics voted for him.
Extraordinarily perceptive as a politician, and intimately aware of the Smith strategy and its results, Roosevelt saw in the 1928 returns, not just crushing losses, but also strength in the votes of Catholics.
Furthermore, he knew that many Americans who were not Catholics themselves were not necessarily opposed to having Catholics in public for office.
For example, FDR saw that while Smith had lost five Confederate states, he had carried six others, in several cases with stunning success. Smith took every county in South Carolina and every civil parish in Louisiana and lost only eight of Georgia's 152 counties. He carried most of the larger Southern cities.
Roosevelt actively courted Catholics, naming numbers of Catholics to the courts and to high government positions, drawing Catholics into his inner circle, and reminding Catholics, correctly, that Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton and Baltimore's late Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley were his cousins, and that his partner in practicing law was a Catholic.
It helped him win majorities of Catholics in 1936 and 1940. When war came to the United States in 1941, supporting Commander-in-Chief Roosevelt meant supporting the war effort. In turn, supporting the war effort meant supporting America. Catholic Americans rushed to support the war effort. Catholics were strongly for FDR in 1944, his last election.
Roosevelt's sudden death in 1945 brought Vice President Harry S Truman to the White House. Truman never flattered Catholics as had FDR, but he never backed away from them either. Not surprisingly, a majority of Catholics voted for Truman in 1948.
Following Truman was General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, mastermind of the war in Europe.
Then, in 1960, the Democrats nominated U. S. Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts, a Catholic.
Knowing that his Catholicism would be an issue, Kennedy, a political strategist as sharp as FDR, decided to turn anti-Catholicism to his advantage.
Protestant ministers unwittingly played into his hands by blasting him as unfit for the Presidency because of his Catholicity. JFK's campaign studiously publicized these attacks in areas with many Catholics.
Just as planned, Catholics became defensive and marshaled behind him, some of them reluctantly.
More emphatically than had Smith, Kennedy insisted that he, as a Catholic, would not ''speak for the Church, nor would it speak for him.''
Careful not to dilute his standing as a Catholic among Catholics, he said that if elected, and if confronted with a conflict between a position seen as expedient for the country and Catholic belief, he would resign. ''I will not disavow my Church,'' he said, a statement rarely remembered these days.
More than ever, the view that politics and religion must stand apart took shape. Contributing to the forming of this attitude at the time was the silence of the American bishops in 1960.
Like Smith, JFK also knew that he had to hold the South. He chose for his running mate a Southerner and a nominal Protestant, U. S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas.
On Election Day, Catholics rallied to Kennedy in such numbers that he took most of the North and Midwest. In the South where, outside Louisiana, Catholics still were few, Kennedy carried most of the states, including Johnson's own Texas, the biggest electoral prize in the old Confederacy. He won Arkansas and Louisiana big. Georgia gave him his greatest win among all the states, including Massachusetts. His wins in Alabama and South Carolina were quite respectable. He even carried North Carolina, actually rather convincingly. North Carolina had the lowest percentage of Catholics of any state in the Union.
Johnson's take-no-prisoners way of doing things helped Kennedy in the South by bringing powerful Southern politicians to commit to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket, along with the vast political networks and sources of many dollars that these politicians commanded.
Kennedy's overall success in the South showed that even many Protestant Americans would set aside religious prejudice if a more important concern was at play. (In the South in 1960, the issue was racial desegregation. Kennedy, not without cause, was perceived as lukewarm on civil rights. Southern blacks could not vote.)
Maybe in 1960, as in 1928, Catholics felt that they had to present a united front against open anti-Catholicism. Maybe they circled the wagons to benefit one of their own. Maybe they vicariously saw themselves in him. In any case, by soaring percentages, they voted for John Kennedy.
Behind the numbers is this point. Aside from all the particular issues of that day, overwhelmingly Catholics in 1960 agreed with Kennedy, as their Catholic parents had agreed with Smith in 1928, that no Catholic President should allow any Catholic hierarch to dictate political policy.
For Catholics, and for conventional politics, the 1960 election was a revolution. It ended much, but definitely not all, of the historic Catholic insecurity.
On a broader scale, changes in communications, financial success, and the changes in their own Church after Vatican Council II, led Catholics more than ever to plunge into the historically Calvinist, but by then increasingly secular, culture, and more than ever to adopt traditionally Protestant individualism into their religious thinking.
A candidate's Catholicity immediately became an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Accordingly, Catholics were Vice Presidential nominees in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1984.
The next chapter in the story began in early 1972 when the U. S. Supreme Court in effect legalized abortion on demand. Catholic bishops denounced the decision on the day of the ruling, and their denunciations have never stopped.
Abortion gradually became a moral issue nationally.
In 1980, strongly pro-life Republi- can Ronald Reagan made great inroads among Catholics.
Abortion became an issue for some Catholics, probably not for most, and certainly not for all. In fact, since the 1972 Supreme Court ruling not only have many of the most determined supporters of abortion in Congress identified themselves as Catholics, but more critically, constituencies heavily Catholic have elected them and re-elected them.
On the other hand, some pro-abortion candidates have attributed their losses at the polls to Catholics voting against them.
When, in 1984, a Catholic officeholder ''personally opposed to abortion, but . . .'' New York Congress- woman Geraldine Ferraro, was the Democrats' nominee for Vice President, New York's outspoken Cardinal John O'Connor criticized her stand on abortion.
It set the stage. In the future, other candidates, despite personal identification with Catholicism, who tolerated abortion, found themselves being scolded by bishops, with more or less fervor involved, and with mixed results in terms of Catholic voting.
Among these candidates was U. S. Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, running for the Democrats for President in 2004.
In defeat, Kerry had only a minority of Catholic votes, albeit not a small minority. By 2004, the Church's stand on abortion may have seeped into the thinking of more Catholics in the pews. However, many Catholics liked George W. Bush, the commander-in-chief in another war, and the champion of traditional middle-class values.
What about this year and the future? Will the way Catholics vote in November 2008 in any way signal whether or not Catholic Americans have overcome their old insecurity about being seen as different by voting to apply their Church's teachings to public policy?
Now, the ultimate, underlying question is how broad or deep are Catholic Americans' personal convictions about their Church as the repository of all that Jesus taught.
In the end, the last question is the greatest question of them all for the Church itself, and its members, to consider, touching as it does touch upon much, much more than politics or public policy. TP
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest magazine.
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