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Catholics and the Presidency

 Catholics and the Presidency             Gerry OShea

In 1933 President Theodore Roosevelt told two of his trusted advisors, Henry Morgenthau Jr., a Jew, and Leo Crowley, a Catholic, “you know this is a Protestant country – Jews and Catholics are here by sufferance.” A hundred years later, these two religious groups are no longer outsiders, but traditional Protestanism still carries real heft in political circles.

People associate religion with conservative politics. Evangelical Christians and churchgoing Catholics tend to support the Republican Party while people deemed liberal in both groups join Jews, Blacks and secular voters to populate the Democratic party. It is hard to imagine a freethinking candidate, unattached to the Christian mainstream, securing a Republican nomination for high office. Similarly, an aspiring Democrat who, for instance, condemns gay marriage would vainly appeal for approval in the Democratic community.

It is highly ironic that two of the top three Democrats in the country, President Biden and Speaker Pelosi, are churchgoing Catholics. They both claim that their understanding of Catholic social values as set down in numerous papal encyclicals has deeply impacted them. They point to their commitment to universal health care, and they claim that they never met an anti-poverty program that they didn’t endorse, influenced by their clear understanding of New Testament principles.

By comparison, the man who is still considered the leader of the Republican party, Donald Trump, and who is assured of garnering a clear majority of the Christian vote, shows no sign that his political positions are touched by moral considerations of any kind.

Consider the outstanding success of the child tax credit which resulted in a collapse in the child poverty rate from 9.7% in 2020 to 5.2% in 2021, a reduction of 40%. The program was designed to provide some extra money to families who needed it to meet their basic needs – and it achieved this worthy goal.

Some people worried that the supplemental check provided by the government would become an incentive for the recipient to stop working, but a study provided no evidence to substantiate these fears.

Sadly, at the end of 2021 this program successfully lessening child poverty did not survive when Joe Manchin torpedoed the Build Back Better Act. Unfortunately, not even one Republican in either House or Senate raised a hand for continuing this vital subsidy for reducing child poverty.

The Catholic hierarchy can point to an ecclesiastical document supporting such progressive legislation, but this tepid commitment is not reflected in the country’s pulpits or in loud public demands against abandoning such patently pro-life legislation. Most of the bishops are wedded to the dubious idea that conception equates with personhood while failing to raise their voices when Democrats demand that paid leave be provided for every new mother.

People in the United States are increasingly using their religious views to inform their political beliefs. The notion of “church shopping” has become more common. A recent study by Monmouth College points out that 25% of adults have considered leaving their family religion because of serious conflicts with their political leanings.

Psychologists identify this inner conflict as involving what they call cognitive dissonance, a clinical condition which applies to people who find themselves in situations where they have to regularly behave in a way that conflicts with their spiritual or emotional convictions.

The big exodus from the Catholic church and other conservative denominations in recent years can be partially explained by their alienation from traditional values especially when it comes to outmoded ecclesiastical views on sexual morality.

Pew research revealed that 54% of adults see the Republican Party as favorable to religion while only 19% think the same way about Democrats.

In the recent midterm elections Republicans identified inflation and the consequent big increases in the supermarket and at the gas pump as the major reason to vote against the governing Democrats, who were certainly vulnerable in this crucial area. On the other hand, Democrats stressed the overturning last June of Roe v Wade by an Alito-led majority in the Supreme Court. Women, especially, were irate that a right to pregnancy termination, granted by the Court in 1973 and considered settled law had been obliterated.

 There were other salient issues but these were the two that each party  highlighted most. The accepted “it’s the economy stupid” wisdom suggested that kitchen table issues, would prevail. Not so this time. Despite cost increases in excess of 8% the people were more moved by the outrage of removing a right taken for granted by women for fifty years.

In 1776 at the time of the Revolutionary War Catholics comprised less than 1% of the population of the new nation. At that time the anti-Catholic Penal Laws were in force in Ireland and religious wars were still common in Europe.

Millions of new immigrants from Poland, Ireland, Italy and Germany, flooded the United States, especially in the second half of the 19th century and changed the religious affiliation picture in this country. Added to these Europeans in the 20th century, large numbers of migrants from Central and South America significantly bolstered the number of Catholics in the country.

Today about 68 million people count themselves as Catholics, and in various surveys they name their faith as being “somewhat” to “very” important to them.

From the mid-19th century until 1964 Catholics voted solidly Democratic, sometimes as high as African-Americans do today. In the 1928 election, Democrats nominated Al Smith, a Catholic, for the presidency. He was roundly defeated and had to suffer religious opprobrium during the campaign.

Catholics played a leading role in the New Deal Coalition, with overlapping memberships in the Church, labor unions, and big city political machines. They promoted liberal policy positions that introduced Social Security and worker benefits. They were also vehemently anti-communist in accordance with strong promptings from their church and political party.

Talking about the intersection of politics and religion, in 1960 close to 90% of his co-religionists backed the first Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, but since then Catholics have split about 50-50 between the two parties in national elections.

There was no indication of a Catholic vote supporting President Biden when he was elected in November 2020. The overall result broke close to half and half, but practicing Catholics, weekly mass goers, turned away from another practicing Catholic and voted by more than two to one for Donald Trump.



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