Reviving a Common Good Partnership

Book cover
Left at the Altarby By Michael Sean WintersBasic Books. 256p $26

American Catholics may have an opportunity to influence this year’s elections as well as to help resolve some important issues like abortion, the Iraq War and family values.

In Left at the Altar, Michael Sean Winters, a political journalist, speechwriter and religion scholar (and blogger for America), traces the history of Catholics’ role in American politics since the 1930s, when they first became aligned with the Democratic Party. He also shows how and why Catholics abandoned the party.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal sought to alleviate the severe unemployment caused by the Depression by addressing workers’ rights, condemning laissez-faire economics and instituting public works projects. One of Roosevelt’s chief advisers on this program was Msgr. John Ryan. A theological scholar born to Irish immigrant parents, Ryan saw the Catholic Church as an “agent for social justice and an integral, progressive political force.” He felt that religion could be applied to the public sphere without violating the separation of church and state.

The New Deal made sense to Catholics, especially the ethnic, working-class Catholics who lived with their extended families in urban neighborhoods. Their lives centered around the parish and school; and they had their own newspapers, entertainment, holidays and feast days. People were assimilated into American culture and democracy by understanding the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and the value of public service through their participation in local politics and unions. But many non-Catholics remained prejudiced against Catholics because of their “strange” religious practices. This prejudice would affect the 1960 election, when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, ran for president.

In order to address these concerns, Kennedy attempted to make his religion inconsequential to his qualifications during his famous Sept. 12, 1960, speech to the Houston Ministerial Association: “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Kennedy argued for a “privacy of faith,” which attempted to distinguish between his “religion problem” and the “real issues.” In doing so, he misconstrued the nature of religion, says Winters, and made a critical shift away from what Monsignor Ryan had worked so hard to frame, namely, that religion addresses societal realities. During the 1930s, economic issues were religious issues because they were justice issues.

The “real issues” of the 1960s turned out to be civil rights and the Vietnam War; in the 1970s they were abortion and consumerism. Americans wanted to debate these issues on religious and moral grounds, but they gradually became disaffected by the “liberal” politics the Democrats had represented.

Kennedy and the Democrats after him responded to civil rights as a justice issue, but they missed the ball on the Vietnam War partly because a majority of Americans believed that Communism should be defeated. They also did not appreciate the tactics of war protesters like the Berrigan brothers, Catholic priests who pointed out the immorality of the war. Instead, they saw such tactics as anti-American and traitorous.

The reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which sought to modernize the church, were also perceived by many Catholics resistant to the changes to be aligned with liberals.

Also, the highly emotional abortion issue of the 1970s separated Catholics and the Democrats even more. Liberals (especially feminists) responded by being more strident in defending Roe v. Wade, especially when they used Kennedy’s “privacy” doctrine to justify their position with “rights” talk.

During the 1960s and 70s, the immigrant families fled their “urban ghettos” and moved out to the suburbs, where they adopted “new secular and commercial identities” that further separated them from their church—and the Democrats.

The Democrats ignored the fact that most Americans and most Catholics were deeply religious. They rejected the “libertarian and utilitarian impulses of liberalism” and sought to “reclaim their moral voice.” As a result, the Democrats appeared to be irreligious, and the Republicans began to look like the “God Party.” Catholics responded politically by helping to elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. In 1994 they helped elect a Republican Congress, and by 2005 a majority of the judges occupying the Supreme Court were conservative—Catholic!

Winters’s last two chapters address the second part of his book title: “How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats.” To appeal to Catholic swing voters, he suggests Democrats should focus on the people’s needs by rekindling Monsignor Ryan’s approach of tying political issues to the core principles of Catholic social thought: concern for the common good and the dignity due every American.

Because Republicans generally embrace a brand of social Darwinism and economic efficiency, Democrats can counter them with more humanistic and pragmatic approaches to issues like health care, abortion, stem cell research, genetic engineering, capital punishment, euthanasia and care for the elderly. And instead of concentrating on legalistic concerns (one’s right to do or not to do something, for example), Democrats should direct attention to human dignity concerns, like what to do with an enfeebled Grandma.

Most Americans admit that selfishness and consumerism have taken over our culture, and they yearn for a shared sense of responsibility. Such sentiments work well when it comes to issues like the environment, education and marriage. By focusing on the common good with regard to these issues, Democrats could address economic well-being, justice, protection of basic freedoms and concern about the nation’s moral and cultural fiber. Such an approach provides some hope that the conflicts over these important issues can be resolved.

Winters also suggests that applying just war theory, a 1,600-year-old Augustinian tradition, could not only end the war in Iraq but prevent other serious state-sponsored violence from starting. This is a less convincing argument, since our national purpose for nearly 100 years has been fixed on national security and our economy for the last 50 years has been buffeted by the “military-industrial complex”—with no end in sight.

Finally, Winters points out that the burgeoning Latino presence in the United States has created a significant change demographically, culturally and politically. Both Democrats and Republicans have been vying for their support. But as immigration remains the single most important issue for this population, Republicans have actually inflamed anti-immigrant feeling. Democrats could counter such policy by opposing restrictive and punitive measures, especially since there are now 11 million undocumented Latinos in the United States. Furthermore, Democrats could institute a pro-family approach to immigration reform in order to find common ground with Latinos, who are largely Catholic, but who have felt alienated from Democrats since Roe v. Wade.

Anyone who likes politics will like Left at the Altar for its history, analysis and explanation of how Catholicism has played a role in our politics. For Democrats it offers hope that the country can resolve some of its troubling issues. For Catholics it allows them to feel proud that their votes and their church may inspire some good.

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joseph kiernan
10 years 7 months ago
Many Catholics, myself included, left the Democrat party because of its stand on abortion (which is not just an issue limited to the 70s); but also because of its over-all anti-religious slant. Also, by the time the 1960s and 70s rolled around it was pretty clear that Democrat and other socially liberal policies just don't work. An evenhanded observer of the Roosevelt administration would say that his policies prolonged the great depression--although, in fairness, many of Hoover's responses were just as bad. Democrats recapturing the Catholic vote; it doesn't seem likely. It is hard to see why a committed Catholic would switch to the Democrats.
10 years 7 months ago
i have not read the book, but the review seemed to give a very thorough presentation of its content. while i do not see any sentence that i disagree with, i find too much missing from this american story. did race have anything to do with the catholic switch? Where was the catholic analysis of the American role in Vietnam? The church just went along for the ride, under the guise of anti-communism. Most of the Vietnamese who died just wanted foreigners out of their country and the only leadership available, apart from the corrupt south vietnamese government was a communist one that they thought would conserve their village way of life. how come the church gave no leadership in this situation leaving the discussion in the hands of berrigans et al. is it only kennedy's distingtion between his catholic private thinking and his public political thiinking that made catholicism a private affair in america, i.e. turned catholicism into a protestant religion with different outward trappings? Or did the narrowly focused, publicly promoted religion on Pope JP not have something to do with this? He spoke only of the private personal sin of abortion, and denied the right of even bishops and bishops conferences to speak on public issues reserving this right to himself. and what did he do with this right. he took America's side in the cold war which meant accepting every little dictatorship America supported in the third world and proxy wars. so the catholic church, the mystical body of christ, the collective of faithful persons were taken out of the sphere of religion as the pursuit of a common good, the definition of which would involve a "see, judge, act" community discussion of rerum novarum etc. and the bible. now we have a sheepish catholic walking head down into his church every sunday to a liturgy that does not see what is outside the walls. there he gives thanks for his john mccain style "security", (buzz words that can get us into more war and grow our military industrial complex) and his personal job (which he fears losing, he/she is driven by this fear above all else)and his resulting absurd gross suburban style "consumerism".


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