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The (Not-So-Mindless) American Catholic Voter

On the Wednesday after Election Day, November 1960, I was at the front of a line marching up the stairs at Christ the King grammar school in Yonkers, New York. I was just behind the nun who was leading us up the stairs. Another nun was coming down and as they passed, one said to the other with a big grin: “Looks like we won!”

Those readers younger than I—and that makes up an awful lot of you—have little idea what it meant to Catholics when John F. Kennedy was elected president. Right or wrong, nearly 78 percent of Catholics voted for Kennedy in 1960. And right or wrong, Kennedy’s election seemed to confirm to the Catholic population that we would no longer be treated as second-class citizens in America.

The national Catholic newspaper, Our Sunday Visitor, had a circulation of well over a million when JFK ran for the presidency. OSV’s founder, Bishop John F. Noll, had long contended that there was no distinct Catholic vote—Catholics voted just like any other Americans.

To prove his point, each national election the Catholic weekly conducted a straw vote among its readers, which was released the Sunday before the election. Noll’s purpose was to show that there was not some massive Catholic vote controlled by the hierarchy (as anti-Catholic literature liked to suggest). In every election going back to the 1940s, that OSV straw vote reflected quite closely the outcome of the national election. In 1960, Kennedy won OSV readers with 78 percent of the straw vote.

Kennedy’s dominance of the Catholic vote was most assuredly the result of a Catholic desire to say, “Looks like we won!” in a presidential election. Still, Kennedy’s huge majority among Catholic voters seemed to offer evidence supporting one of the most persistent Catholic urban legends of American politics.

The Mythical “Catholic Bloc”

The urban legend of the American Catholic voter is simple, hauled out whenever necessary to avoid issues and pander to a visceral anti-Catholicism. As Bishop Noll hoped to disprove, the legend is that Catholics are a mindless horde that will vote in lockstep according to the dictates of the hierarchy. The bishops in control of this massive Catholic electorate will wield their electoral power to undermine American democracy.

The idea of a Catholic voting block that threatened the separation of church and state was an argument that arose in the early decades of the 19th century in local battles over public aid to Catholic schools. It is an argument still made today, whether the issue is abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, or immigration. Like most Catholic urban legends, it is dusted off for rhetorical purposes to appeal to a generic anti-Catholic DNA in American culture.

Catholic urban legends always have a certain basis in fact. The trial of Galileo took place; the inquisition existed; the Crusades happened. But the history becomes entangled and eventually overwhelmed by the myths and propaganda that surround them. The trial of Galileo becomes a trump card to show that the Church opposes modern science; the Spanish-Inquisition myths created by 16th-century propagandists become a symbol of Catholic intolerance and cruelty; the Crusades are represented as a Church-controlled genocidal attack on innocent Muslims.

The same is true of the urban legend of the American Catholic voter. Catholics were—and still are to a certain extent—a distinct electorate within the American population that can be tracked by pollsters. As George J. Marlin argues in his excellent book The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact (St. Augustine’s Press, revised ed., 2006) Catholics have been a definable voting block in America, though less so in recent years. Like any group of voters, they cast their ballots as determined by their perceived best interests or if they were under siege. But that’s a long way from a portrait of unthinking hierarchical minions.

In fact, attempts by the hierarchy to directly sway the Catholic voter in favor of particular candidates were very few in American history precisely because the hierarchy generally feared the accusation of trying to create a Catholic voting block. Bishop John Hughes of New York, in his battle with the Democrats over the Catholic school-aid question in the early 1840s, urged Catholics to vote for a handpicked slate of Catholic candidates. They did. But this was a battle over a hard-fought local issue when Catholics were also facing organized, anti-Catholic forces.

Popish Political Plots

When anti-Catholicism began to rear its head in early America, a common understanding was that the Catholic voter could not be trusted. In America’s earliest political division between John Adams’ Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans, one of the battlegrounds was the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. While not aimed specifically at what was then a tiny Catholic minority, those laws did strive to curb “foreign intrigues” against the Federalist government of John Adams. The Sedition Act raised Catholic concerns when the first person prosecuted was an Irish Catholic.

By the 1830s, alleged Catholic political plots against the American government were common political fodder. In 1836, Lyman Beecher, the father of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, argued in “The Plea for the West” that there was a Catholic political conspiracy to take over the Mississippi Valley. The argument was echoed by Samuel Morse, inventor of the first successful telegraph in the United States, when he claimed that immigration from Catholic countries was a royalist conspiracy to take over America and install the pope in the New World.

This Nativist anti-Catholic fever reached a crescendo with the Know-Nothing party of the 1840s and 1850s, built on the fear of a Catholic takeover of America through domination of the ballot box. A centerpiece of the movement was denying immigrant Catholics access to voting by requiring a minimum of 25 years’ residency before citizenship was granted, as well as various anti-papal test acts before taking political office.

After the Civil War, the fear was that Catholic voters egged on by their bishops would force state subsidies for parochial schools and destroy the public school system. In the midst of passing convent inspection laws and other anti-Catholic nuisances, numerous states would append so-called “Blaine Amendments” to their constitutions to prevent such subsidies no matter how “powerful” the Catholic voting block became. The amendments were named after Senator James G. Blaine of Maine, who had proposed a federal constitutional amendment that did not pass. A host of Blaine Amendments are still on the books.

Save Us from Foreigners . . .

The American Protective Association—while conjuring up fears of an armed Catholic uprising—argued in the late 19th century through the early 20th century for restrictions on Catholic immigration and for the closing of Catholic schools as un-American entities brainwashing the young. Its members swore never to vote for a Catholic candidate for office.

The “Goo-Goo” (“Good Government”) movement of urban political reform in the late 19th and early 20th century aimed to break the power of urban political machines. It was often, however, a thinly disguised attack on the power of the Catholic city voter, allegedly controlled by neighborhood priests and bishops in cahoots with the local Democratic machine.

The 1924 Democratic presidential convention in New York City—with 103 ballots taken, the longest in history—was torn apart by the Ku Klux Klan and its fight against the nomination of New York’s governor, Catholic Al Smith. The Klan believed that Smith’s nomination would mean that the pope would run the White House. And, of course, when Smith managed to secure the nomination in 1928, he faced an electorate majority convinced that “foreign” Catholics were on the cusp of taking over America. He lost to Republican Herbert Hoover.

In the 1950s, Paul Blanshard argued in a series of bestselling books, most notoriously American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949), that the growing Catholic population would soon overwhelm the American political system. Catholic voters and Catholic politicians would be mandated by the hierarchy to destroy the public school system, ban birth control and divorce, and otherwise impose hierarchical mandates on the non-Catholic population.

Blanshard’s writings reflected the perspective of Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (POAU), founded by Methodist Bishop Garfield Bromley Oxnam in 1947. The POAU also warned of Catholic voting power as undermining Protestants’—and other Americans’—freedoms. The group focused on attacking Catholic schools, battling against the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and arguing that ordained Catholic clergy should be denied the vote since they are subject to a foreign prince (the pope). Today’s “Americans United,” which opposes any religious voice in the public arena, is the direct descendent of the POAU.

. . . and Moralists!

By 1960, that was the world Kennedy faced in attempting to be the first successful Catholic presidential candidate. That was also the reason why he spent most of the campaign denying that his Catholic faith would have any impact on his political decisions. He believed—correctly, perhaps, from a political perspective—that to win he had to calm fears that his election would mean a Catholic takeover of the United States.

Oddly enough, Kennedy’s victory in 1960 represented only a brief armistice in the battle against the Catholic urban legend of the parlous American Catholic voter. The exact same threat of the hierarchy controlling a massive Catholic electorate to undermine American rights became a staple in the pro-abortion campaign by the late 1960s. This was so successful that pro-life people would find themselves arguing the role of religion in public life more than the issue of abortion itself.

And that strategy continues today over a host of issues. Whether the matter is legalized suicide, embryonic stem-cell research, or gay marriage, the tactic is to appeal to fears of a Catholic electorate controlled by the hierarchy imposing its values on the American culture.

The Real Swingers

This is not to argue that there isn’t a “Catholic vote” at all. As Marlin observes in The American Catholic Voter, Catholic voting has always shown distinct patterns. And Catholic voters responded at the ballot box when attacked. One of the legendary moments in American politics was when in 1884 Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine—of Blaine Amendments fame—sat idly by in New York while a minister excoriated the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Insulted New York Catholics supported Grover Cleveland and gave him the state and the national election.

To point out the ridiculousness of the Catholic urban legend does not change the fact that there is a Catholic vote, just as there is a Jewish vote, an Evangelical vote, a union vote or a women’s vote. Catholics make up roughly 24 percent of the population. Both Democrat and Republican pollsters consider Catholics the last “swing” voting block—a high number of voters that can go either way in a national election.

Pollsters have also found that practicing Catholics—roughly nine percent of the total electorate—provide the identifiable swing. The non-practicing or occasional Mass-attending Catholic voters tend to vote based more on the larger group within which they live and work: Their voting patterns reflect their education, economic class, region in which they live, etc.

That is far less true of practicing Catholics. They are more likely to vote based on a distinct Catholic identity and perspective rather than class or region. In 2004 non-practicing Catholics gave Catholic John Kerry a slight edge over George Bush, 50 percent to 49 percent. Churchgoing Catholics, however, voted for Bush 56 percent to 43, and the difference gave Bush the election. There are those who argue that a Democrat cannot win the White House unless he garners at least 53 percent of the total Catholic vote.

But a mindless Catholic vote dictated by the hierarchy? That’s the stuff of Catholic urban legends.

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