Why Being Catholic Isn’t Special in Politics Anymore

Nobody much talks about Biden as the heir to a tradition of Catholic Democrats. Photo: Left: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Right: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

With all the anniversaries of 1960 coming and going lately, a notable one has largely escaped general notice: the election 60 years ago of the first Roman Catholic United States president. As New York Times columnist Elizabeth Bruenig points out, the religion of Joe Biden, who is bidding to become the second Catholic president, does not seem to matter much at all — except, I would add, insofar as having some religion serves as a talisman against charges that he is a God-hating antifa activist with a Che Guevara poster on his wall.

Bruenig quite accurately notes that the astronomical levels of Catholic voter support for JFK (estimates range from 70 to 83 percent) were in part the product of very-much-alive and deeply resented anti-Catholic prejudice, which was still common among Protestant clergy (particularly the Evangelicals who are so cozily working with traditionalist Catholics in the anti-abortion and “religious liberty” movements these days). That threat to the acceptance of Catholics as good patriotic Americans has subsided. But Bruenig thinks something else is going on: the abandonment of the sharper edges of Catholic tradition by Democrats like Biden that might have served to mobilize many of their co-religionists while pulling the Democrats in a usefully progressive direction. Much of what JFK (who famously referred to his faith as “an accident of birth”) represented was a desire for Catholics to abandon their “different-ness.” In this they succeeded, but at a price, particularly for the Catholic left:

What remains of the Catholic left has met [a] debilitating fate. “F.D.R. brought Catholics into the Democratic Party in large numbers,” [Notre Dame professor] Dr. [Peter] 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.

The reason Bruenig tends to blame neoliberal Catholic pols rather than, say, Catholic voters for this lost opportunity (which she must feel keenly as a convert to Catholicism who found in its pre-capitalist teachings an ancient mandate for socialist politics) is the fresh example being set by Pope Francis, whose sometimes-radical economic and environmental teachings are often ignored by American Catholics as much as his anti-abortion views:

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,” [Catholic historian] Dr. [Maria] 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 unionswar and Social Security.

Which is to say that he is an ordinary Democrat — more or less his explicit pitch. 

Now Catholics are hardly alone in the extent to which otherworldly perspectives have been worn down by American cultural and political dynamics. I was raised as a Southern Baptist at a time when that tradition’s most distinctive position (other than baptism-by-full-immersion and congregational autonomy) was militant support for church-state separation. The Baptists who participated in the famous clerical grilling of JFK in Houston in 1960 were agitated by concerns that no good Catholic could accept a “wall of separation,” as Jefferson had put it in a letter to — no coincidence — Connecticut Baptists. Now Southern Baptists are the most militant opponents of church-state separation you can imagine, and their fervor for conservative culture has also made them abandon their historic commitments to congregational autonomy and freedom of individual conscience. (The Southern Baptist Convention is rigidly centralized around enforcement of theological orthodoxy in a way that reactionary Catholics must envy.)

As Bruenig herself notes, it’s not just the Catholic left that has lost its purchase in this country: “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.”

So is any of this Joe Biden’s fault? And is his refusal to adopt a distinctly Catholic identity and political message responsible for the falloff of Catholic Democratic support since FDR and Kennedy? Bruenig does not make this charge, but implies it, and it’s an interesting question anyway.

Catholics are hardly the only politically marginalized group that has strongly supported a “breakthrough” presidential candidate and then soon felt less need to do so. Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter put together a mind-bending coalition of Black and white southern Evangelicals in 1976 — civil-rights veterans check-by-jowl with crypto-segregationists, as well as Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell Sr. Four years later, he lost every southern state other than his native Georgia. It’s unlikely that any presidential candidate will ever get the kind of Black support (and turnout) Barack Obama achieved in 2008. This sort of dynamic is evident even in regional subgroups. In 1990, Appalachian pol Zell Miller swept his native North Georgia Mountain region on his way to becoming the first hillbilly governor in living memory. Four years later he lost the region and narrowly survived thanks to a surge in the Atlanta suburbs, and now north Georgia is one of the most profoundly Republicans areas in the country.

Is something lost whenever a group perceived as “at odds” with mainstream opinion assimilates? Of course. But there will always be contrarians like Elizabeth Bruenig to keep constructively abrasive traditions alive.

Why Being Catholic Isn’t Special in Politics Anymore