The November 2010 mid-term congressional elections came and went without many people noticing that Election Day this year was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency in November 1960.
It is hard today for younger Americans, including younger Catholics, to appreciate just how close 1960 still was to the days when anti-Catholic bigotry and even violence was everywhere one turned in American society. “Anti-Papist” prejudice was intertwined with anti-immigrant, ethnic and class prejudices. But by the mid-20th century, most anti-Catholic sentiment in Anglo-Protestant America centered squarely on religion.
In 1960, open attacks on the “Americanism” and patriotism of Roman Catholics were no longer standard fare. Instead, the attacks were a bit more subtle, even subliminal. During the Democratic primary in West Virginia in 1960, supporters of Kennedy’s main rival, Hubert H. Humphrey, a Congregationalist, took to playing or singing “Give Me That Old-Time Religion.”
In the century leading up to Kennedy’s victory, successive generations of Catholic clergy and lay leaders used words, deeds and symbols to neutralize nativist nonsense and Know-Nothing canards about Catholics as citizens. The shield of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, for instance, founded in 1851, sported 32 stars, one for each state, plus that all-American Latin phrase, E Pluribus Unum.
Most Catholics today know nothing about the Know-Nothings. Rather, post-1960 Catholics have moved so far into the American mainstream politically and culturally that they are now, as a religious bloc, what political scientists call “median voters.”
On nearly every public policy issue on which there is good national polling data—from immigration to environmental protection, the death penalty to welfare spending and myriad other issues—Catholics as a group come as close as any religious denomination does to mirroring what most Americans believe.
A plurality of Catholics, like a plurality of Americans generally, call themselves moderates, while about a third call themselves conservatives, and about one fifth consider themselves liberals.
In the run-up to the 2008 elections, Republican or Republican-leaning citizens constituted about 35 percent of the voting-age population and 33 percent of the Catholic electorate, while Democratic or Democratic-leaning citizens made up about 47 percent of the voting-age population and 48 percent of the Catholic electorate.
In 2008 the national popular vote was about 53 percent to 47 percent for Obama over McCain, while the Catholic vote was about 54 percent to 45 percent for Obama over McCain. In 2010 Catholics led the country in swinging back to the Republicans: about 54 percent of all Americans, including about 54 percent of all Catholics, who went to the polls and voted in a House race voted for a Republican.
On the one hand, nobody, save perhaps closet anti-Catholic bigots, pines for the pre-1960 days, when Catholics were ridiculed and caricatured as un-American or worse.
On the other hand, Catholics’ post-1960 march into the all-American political and cultural mainstream has come at a price.
The country’s Catholic bishops face a flock that includes large numbers of people who hold positions at odds with church teaching (on abortion, the death penalty, programs to assist the poor and many other issues).
Among young Catholics who attend college, over four-fifths now go to non-Catholic institutions, many with majority or plurality non-Catholic student bodies—and blend right in.
And beneath all the data on “Catholics” are divisions between church-going conservative Catholics and “less religious,” more liberal or lapsed ones, and between Democratic-leaning urban Latino Catholics and Republican-leaning suburban white Catholics.
Have American Catholics been folded so completely into the nation’s political and cultural mainstream that they can no longer be its political salt and cultural light, or so divided among themselves that they can never speak truth to power in one faith-filled voice? I pray not, but I fear so.