Explainer: A brief history of the Catholic Vote in the United States
The Catholic vote in the United States is neither monolithic nor static. To learn about its history, check out the articles below from the archives of America magazine. And to learn more about the most important issues facing Catholic voters in 2020, listen to our new podcast, “Voting Catholic,” hosted by Sebastian Gomes. Each episode tackles one issue through personal storytelling and socio-political analysis from a Catholic perspective. You can listen to “Voting Catholic” via Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.
1800s: Catholic immigrants in Northern cities ally with political party machines (like Tammany Hall in New York City) and Southern Democrats.
A wave of Irish immigrants to the United States, beginning even before the Irish potato famine in 1845, greatly increases the U.S. Catholic population, introducing a critical voting bloc to large cities like New York and, eventually, to most of the country. In the 1840s, nearly half of all immigrants in the United States were Irish. Over the next century, other large groups of Catholic immigrants, including Italians, would arrive in the United States.
“Catholics and candidates,” by Matt Malone, S.J., May 17, 2004
In the period from 1890 to 1930, the United States experienced a greater influx of immigrants than in the entire period before 1890; and millions of the newcomers were Catholics. The ruling class was WASP and Republican—seemingly unsympathetic to the concerns of the new underclass. “By and large the Democrats were seen as more welcoming,” says White. “This was confirmed in 1923, when the Republican Congress and a Republican president voted to shut off immigration.”
“Irish-Americans tempted to condemn today’s protests should remember their history,” by Edward Hoyt, June 15, 2020
Not so long ago, through no fault of our own, the Irish-Catholic citizen was very much on the wrong side of the American system. When it finally crushed us, we responded with what is thought to be the largest and most destructive civil disturbance in U.S. history…. It was 1863, in New York City during the Civil War, when Irish-Americans were stirred by the enormity and shock of seeing Irish name after Irish name published in the casualty lists coming back from the battles. Inflamed and brokenhearted over the deaths of their young men, they took to the streets of Lower Manhattan.
1884: The anti-Catholic slogan “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” is coined.
The Catholic vote becomes big enough for presidential candidates to court, and Republican nominee James Blaine makes an aggressive play for Irish voters in New York. Unfortunately for Blaine, a Presbyterian minister speaking on his behalf at a rally in New York makes a contemptuous reference to the Catholic vote. Democrats quickly distribute handbills to Catholic churches accusing Blaine of being hostile to immigrants, and Blaine narrowly loses both New York and the national election. But the slogan, with its implication that Catholic elected officials would be controlled by the Vatican, has a long afterlife, even dogging Democratic nominee Al Smith over 40 years later.
“How James G. Blaine became the face of anti-Catholicism in education,” by Nicholas D. Sawicki, Jan. 30, 2020
One of Blaine’s greatest challenges was securing the burgeoning Catholic vote. A Presbyterian by rearing, Blaine had proposed, as a political stunt to distract from President Grant’s flailing administration, a constitutional amendment in 1875 that would have restricted all federal funds from going to religiously affiliated schools. The amendment passed in the House but failed by four votes in the Senate. The failed amendment dogged Blaine, allowing his opponents in the Democratic Party to hurl claims of anti-Catholicism at him.
But it was not until the very end of the 1884 campaign that the Democrats secured the ammunition it needed to kill Blaine’s chances for the presidency. When Blaine visited a group of Protestant ministers in New York, the welcoming speaker, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Burchard, provided the buzzwords that would turn the vote. As Charles Willis Thomas wrote for America in 1932 about Rev. Burchard’s remarks: “One of those droning sentences was this: ‘We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.’... It passed unheeded—unheeded by all save one. The Democratic National Committee had a sleuth following Blaine around, to pick up any unconsidered trifle that might make good campaign ammunition.” With this, the Tammany political machine in New York went to work against Blaine.
1928: Al Smith wins Democratic Party nod, becomes first Catholic major-party nominee for president.
Al Smith, the Democratic governor of New York, becomes the first Catholic nominee of a major party. Anti-Catholicism is strong in the fall campaign, with the Ku Klux Klan calling Smith the “anti-christ” and leaflets warning that if a Catholic won the White House, all Protestant marriages would be annulled and the possession of a Bible would be illegal. There is evena rumor that a tunnel will be built between Washington, D.C., and Rome for the pope to use in secret.
“To all Catholic candidates for president: Thank Al Smith,” by Terry Golway, Oct. 17, 2019
It is easy to forget, especially in light of the emphasis placed on race and gender in current historical scholarship, that Al Smith was considered exotic and threatening a century ago. His religion placed him beyond the pale of traditional American power arrangements, and because of that, his detractors feared not just the man himself but those who supported him as well. An acquaintance of William Gibbs McAdoo, who was President Woodrow Wilson’s treasury secretary and son-in-law, complained that Smith represented “aliens... Catholics...northern negroes [and] Jews” who were intent on transforming “the America of Anglo-Saxon stock.” The famed Kansas journalist William Allen White wrote that the “whole Puritan civilization which has built a sturdy, orderly nation is threatened by Smith.”
The cultural analysts who dominate academic history today would likely see Smith as just another white guy, if they deigned to consider traditional political history at all. In fact, he was anything but. He was a symbol of the Other, the personification of a new America that was emerging in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Immigrants and their children traced their roots not to the fields of the English midlands or the ancient cities of Germany but to small villages in Sicily and the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Indeed, the accusations were true—they had not a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood running through their veins. Perhaps most important of all, they walked humbly with their God in ways the majority found offensive and threatening.
1948: Bishops ask U.S. Catholics to take a stand against “secularism.”
The U.S. Supreme Court rules that voluntary religious classes cannot be held in public schools (or on “tax-supported property”). Condemning this decision, the National Catholic Welfare Council, a forerunner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, releases a statement titled “The Christian in Action,” calling secularism “the most deadly menace to our Christian and American way of living.” The bishops write, “We call upon our Catholic people to seek in their faith an inspiration and a guide in making an informed contribution to good citizenship.”
“Whether Trump or Biden wins, the church will keep losing. Where does that leave Christian voters?”, by Bill McCormick, S.J., Aug. 28, 2020
Catholics in the United States have been engaged in local politics since the 19th century, and their participation in national politics has become more prominent since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. But this is precisely the time period in which secularization has increased in the United States.
Catholic political participation did not cause this secularization. But as the country continues to secularize, Christians have to ask themselves: Has Christian engagement in politics been good for evangelization? If not, what kinds of political engagement are good for evangelization? What kinds draw people to Christ?
How might this new reality shape Christianity in the public square?
1960: Democratic Party nominates John F. Kennedy for president.
John F. Kennedy, a 43-year-old U.S. senator from Massachusetts, becomes the first Catholic major-party presidential nominee since another Democrat, Al Smith, in 1928. Kennedy wins an estimated 80 percent of the Catholic vote in November; since then, only Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has received a comparable share of Catholic voters.
Like Al Smith, he faces attacks on his faith. One joke is that Kennedy would change the motto on U.S. currency from “In God We Trust” to “In The Pope We Hope.” Trying to turn the tide, Kennedy accepts an invitation to address the “religious issue” before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12.
“A great inaugural,” by the editors of America, Feb. 4, 1961
What was there, then, about this Inaugural which in the opinion of some raised it far above pedestrian levels and destined it, perhaps, to a high place in history?
It was written in excellent modern style—lean, terse, evocative. It was rich in literary, biblical and historical overtones. To old friends and ambitious foes, to our neighbors in the hemisphere and the masses of people in underdeveloped lands everywhere, it said with precision, and with feeling deep but disciplined, exactly what should have been said. And the address was studded with quotable gems: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate”; “For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed”; “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”; “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
“How Billy Graham shaped American Catholicism,” by Jon M. Sweeney, Feb. 21, 2018
During the 1960 U.S. presidential election...according to biographer William Martin, the evangelist made it clear to many that Richard Nixon was his man and that he was deeply concerned at the prospect of a Catholic president. Soon thereafter, however, Mr. Graham seems to have changed his perspective. He experienced a warming and openness to expressions of Christian faith that had been previously foreign to his Southern, fundamentalist, Southern Baptist roots. By 1961, Mr. Graham and President Kennedy prayed side by side at a Washington prayer breakfast.
1960s-1970s: Rising affluence and education leads to a less predictable Catholic vote.
Especially after 1960, U.S. Catholics make significant gains in household income and educational attainment, and they no longer vote as an economically disadvantaged bloc. Many upwardly mobile Catholic households drift to the Republican Party. “What we’re developing,” the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset told The New York Times in 1980, “is Catholic Anglo-Saxon Protestants.”
“Catholics and candidates,” by Matt Malone, S.J., May 17, 2004
Since the early 1960’s Catholics have become more suburban and more affluent. In fact “the last meeting that John Kennedy had in the White House was about how to deal with suburban voters” in the 1964 election, according to White. As Catholics continue to move from the cities to the suburbs and from blue-collar union jobs to white-collar nonunion jobs, it should not surprise anyone if they vote Republican. “It’s got to do with class,” says Polsby. “Lots of Catholics do what Protestants do. When they make more money, they are more likely to be Republican.”...
Since 1960, says White, while Catholics have continued to be more likely than other religious groups to support Democratic candidates, there has been a movement of Catholics away from the Democratic Party. Why? “In one sense, the Democratic Party lost Catholics because the greatest danger for a party is not when they fail but when they succeed. The New Deal was a great success,” White says. In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, Catholics had become part of the haves. They now relate to the government not as recipients of its services but as its overseers. “They’ve got their green eyeshades on and they’re looking at their tax bills,” says White.
1972: Richard Nixon is the first modern Republican to win a clear majority of the Catholic vote.
Republican Richard Nixon had won the 1968 presidential election on a “law and order” platform, benefiting from a backlash against the social unrest and riots in the 1960s. In 1972, polls suggest, many Catholic Democrats in the Northeast and Midwest cross party lines and help Nixon to win re-election, carrying 49 states. Among his political advisors: Pat Buchanan, a Catholic who would later run for president twice.
“Remembering Nixon's Catholic coup: An Interview with Pat Buchanan,” by Sean Salai, S.J., Aug. 5, 2014
I think many Catholics of that generation—conservative, traditionalist Catholic union folks—were much closer to Richard Nixon than they were to the elites demonstrating on the campuses or the rioters.... Cultural, moral and social issues brought postwar Catholics into the Nixon new majority.
1973: Supreme Court decision legalizes abortion with Roe v. Wade decision.
The legal status of abortion becomes a key issue for Catholic voters when the U.S. Supreme Court rules, in Roe v. Wade, that the “right to privacy” protects a woman’s choice to have an abortion during the first two trimesters of a pregnancy, even weighed against the government’s interest in also protecting “the potentiality of human life.”
Since then, abortion has become an increasingly polarizing issue, with the Republican Party claiming the “pro-life” position and the Democratic Party endorsing the “pro-choice” position.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter becomes the last Democratic presidential nominee to express support for tighter restrictions on abortion. His 57 percent of the Catholic vote (according to Gallup) has not been surpassed since.
“Why are Hispanic Catholics pro-life? What politics can’t explain,” by J.D. Long-García, Aug. 28, 2019
Culturally, Latinos are more likely to identify as pro-family than as pro-life, Ms. De Los Santos said, explaining that the term “pro-life” has only really become known in the community in the last 10 years. “We grow up with our grandparents and take care of them until they die,” she said. “And every grandmother understands the value of a child. Our families recognize that the baby in the womb has value, is a human being and is already part of the family.”
At the same time, a number of studies have found many Latino parents are uncomfortable discussing certain topics with their children, like sex, pornography and abortion. Ms. Domingo said that she suspects, for example, that parents do not realize their children as young as 13 could get an abortion without their permission.
“Abortion is proving that the Democratic Party can outdo Republicans in self-destruction,” by Robert David Sullivan, May 15, 2017
“The ability to control reproduction is central to women’s social, professional, and economic stability,” wrote Rebecca Traister in New York magazine, “and the women most likely to require abortion services and to be negatively affected by restrictions on access to reproductive health care are poor and low-income women, disproportionately women of color.”
Certainly a lot of Democrats, including some Catholics, sincerely feel this way. But many pro-choice activists are dismissive of the idea that voters can oppose abortion for any reason other than wanting to oppress women. They cannot accept that some of the same men and women rallying for the humane treatment of refugees, for the abolition of the death penalty and for the Black Lives Matter movement also have moral objections to abortion—that the consistent ethic of life is real for many people.
Audio: Jesuitical podcast episode with Steven P. Millies, author of Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump.
1992: Pat Buchanan becomes the first Catholic candidate to make a serious run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Patrick Buchanan, a Catholic political commentator and former aide to President Richard Nixon, mounts a challenge to incumbent George H.W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination, stressing his opposition not only to high taxes but also to abortion, gay rights and high levels of immigration into the United States.
Buchanan finishes second in the Republican primaries in 1992 and again in 1996, getting 23 percent and 21 percent of the vote, respectively. Another politically conservative Catholic, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, finishes second in the 2012 Republican primaries with 20 percent. Exit polls in early primary states suggest that Mr. Santorum is more popular among Protestant voters than among Catholics, and he wins primaries in the Protestant Bible Belt states of Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
“Remembering Nixon’s Catholic coup: An Interview with Pat Buchanan,” Sean Salai, Aug. 5, 2014
“I think the Catholic faith is consistent with the kind of conservatism I believe in. You know, I’m a traditionalist, I’m a Latin Mass Catholic and I hold to traditional views of responsibility. I’m not a libertarian in the sense that I think all these social programs should be abolished in any sense. I’m familiar with ‘Rerum Novarum’ and ‘Quadragesimo Anno’ and all of those things that influenced me in Catholic school. I went through the nuns and the Jesuits. I mean, I had eight years of nuns and never had any other sort of teacher in my grammar school, and eight years of Jesuits in high school and college. These were pre-Vatican II orders and you could not escape that influence. It’s a part of who you are.”
2004: Democrat John Kerry becomes the first Catholic since J.F.K. to win a major-party nomination
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts wins the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, easily winning primaries even in states with small Catholic populations. The overt anti-Catholicism seen in the 1928 and 1960 presidential elections has dissipated, but Mr. Kerry faces scrutiny over his pro-choice views on abortion. Because of those views, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis forbids Mr. Kerry from taking communion while campaigning in the area.
In November, exit polls suggest, Kerry wins only about half the Catholic vote, a sharp contrast to Kennedy’s overwhelming support in 1960.
“Explainer: When can someone be denied the Eucharist?”, by James T. Keane, Oct. 30, 2019
The incident with Mr. Biden reignited a furor that prominently figured in the 2004 presidential campaign, when the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John F. Kerry, a Catholic, was criticized for his pro-choice political stance as well as questions regarding his divorce and remarriage. The then-archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond L. Burke, told reporters that he would give Senator Kerry only a blessing if he came forward for Communion. When he was bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., then-Bishop Burke (who is also a canon lawyer) publicly notified three state legislators that they were not to receive Communion because of their pro-choice stances.
“A Catholic votes for John Kerry,” James R. Kelly, Sept. 27, 2004
Many pro-life Catholics, like myself, find the positions of Democratic candidates on domestic and foreign policy much more to their liking than the positions of the Republican Party. But can a pro-life Catholic even consider voting for a pro-choice presidential candidate? Despite being pro-life, I am going to vote for John F. Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, rather than for George W. Bush, who explicitly claims to be pro-life and has promoted the ban on partial-birth abortion and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Because this is such a difficult decision for me as a pro-life Catholic, I will ignore all the other reasons why I prefer Kerry to Bush and focus on the question of abortion, because, strange as it may sound, I am voting for Kerry because I am pro-life. I will make my case as a social scientist who believes that voting involves a prudential judgment that must look at the facts and not just what candidates say. I believe that President Bush, if re-elected, will not deliver on his promises and that a Kerry administration would support economic programs that would in fact reduce the number of abortions.
2020: Catholic voters are a crucial voting bloc in a watershed election.
Catholic voters draw more attention than ever in the race between the incumbent Republican president, Donald J. Trump, and the Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., attempting to become only the second Catholic president in U.S. history. But polls show a significant divide between the older white Catholic bloc and the growing population of Hispanic Catholics in the United States.
“Voting Catholic: How have Catholics voted in past elections?,” summary of the Voting Catholic podcast episode “What happened to the ‘Catholic Vote’,” Kevin Christopher Robles, Oct. 3, 2020:
Almost six in 10 white Catholics identify with or lean toward the Republican party, and almost two-thirds of them voted for Mr. Trump over Ms. Clinton in 2016. About the same number of Catholics say they will vote for Mr. Trump in the upcoming election. This group also expresses more approval than disapproval of Mr. Trump’s job performance.
“White Catholics are a pretty strongly Republican group, and they’ve been trending that way for quite some time,” [Greg Smith, the associate director of religion research at the Pew Research Center], said.
Hispanic Catholics, meanwhile, are a different story. They constitute a large and growing segment of the Catholic electorate, and about two-thirds of them say they identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. About 65 percent say they will vote for Joe Biden in the upcoming election.
“While they share a faith in common, [Hispanic Catholics and white Catholics] are at totally different ends of the political spectrum,” Mr. Smith said.
“Explainer: Yes, Catholics can vote for Democrats. (They can vote for Republicans, too!),” James T. Keane and Sam Sawyer, S.J., Sept. 15, 2020
In late August, Catharine P. O’Neill, the executive director of Catholics for Trump, declared on Twitter that “You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat—pass it on.” A day before, a Catholic priest, the Rev. James Altman of the diocese of La Crosse, Wis., had released a video on YouTube condemning Mr. Biden in harsh terms, including the following words: “Here’s a memo for clueless, baptized Catholics out there. You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period.”...
For much of the 20th century the majority of U.S. Catholics voted for Democrats, but the Catholic Church in the United States has never mandated that its members vote for one party or another. To do so would violate the spirit of the U.S. Constitution as well as Catholic teaching on the primacy of conscience. A principle of Catholic teaching since St. Thomas Aquinas, the primacy of the individual conscience was affirmed by none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, in 1968: “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.”