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Elections come and go. Candidates are voted in and out of office. Power exchanges hands–usually smoothly, but sometimes with commotion, occasionally with lawsuits thrown in for good measure. It’s all part of the American political culture, ever evolving, sometimes puzzling, very often fascinating.

In the midst of this potent mix of campaigns, ideological battles, cultural shifts, and political intrigue is the enigmatic Catholic voter. Who is the American Catholic voter exactly? As George J. Marlin writes in his invaluable study,
The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact, "Roman Catholics have been a part of America and American politics from the beginning. And often a controversial part."

During the Colonial era, Catholics often weren’t allowed to participate in the political process. Today they form a powerful voting bloc that has a tremendous influence on the local, state, and national political landscape.

In the preface Marlin–who is Chairman and C.O.O. of the Philadelphia Trust Company and general editor of the forty-six volume
Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton–writes:

I am a Catholic. I was born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, into a family of "M Smith" Democrats, who were socially conservative, supportive of New Deal programs, and critical of the Great Society’s largesse. Growing up in the fifties and early sixties, most of my friends and neighbors had similar backgrounds and outlooks. They were second- and third-generation blue-collar ethnics committed to family, church, discipline, loyalty, and hard work. The parish neighborhood of my youth was a microcosm of the political culture of America’s Catholic working class.

My parents and grandparents survived the Depression thanks to the parish and the local political clubhouse. These institutions helped to prevent the emergence of a rebellious underclass during the 1930s by serving as social and educational centers. Priests and nuns instilled the moral direction necessary to maintain civility, while local pols gave helping hands, although not handouts.

In The American Catholic Voter, I attempt to describe the impact Catholics have had on the electoral process during the past two-hundred years. I argue that for most of our country’s history, the Catholic bloc has been a pivotal swing vote that determined outcomes in numerous national, state, and local elections.

Faith, Marlin shows, is not a private matter nor has its influence been silently reserved for personal opinions. It has been active in the shaping of conscience and party loyalty and in often creating tensions with the secular culture and shifting party platforms:

I subscribe to the belief that most Catholics voters, who were loyal to family, church, and neighborhood, cast their ballots according to cultural standards determined by their faith. With political analyst Michael Barone, I believe that "The voting bases of the traditional Democratic and Republican Parties were primarily cultural; both drew allegiance from Americans who saw them not as promoters of their economic status, but as a protector of their way of life." The party label of "protectors of Catholic blue-collar values" has been claimed at different times by both Democrats and Republicans. But over time just one of the political parties has embraced the elitist notion that the best political structure is an efficiently engineered society where the individual is rendered meaningless. The other party has been the defender of the neighborhood and has adopted the concept of subsidiarity (long championed in Catholic social thought) which, to quote Michael Novak, "maintains that human life proceeds most intelligently and creatively when decisions are made at the local level closest to concrete reality."

During the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, the Democratic Party endorsed the concept of subsidiarity. Mr. Barone asserts that "the Democrats, drawing on their past, called themselves Jeffersonian and took care to respect local mores and idiosyncrasies, from segregation in the South to the saloon in the North.... The Democracy was a party of White southerners and northern Catholics, of Southern Baptist prohibitionists and immigrant imbibers, of nativists and those who spoke no English, of teeming eastern cities and the wastelands of the Great Basin."

Catholic voters overwhelmingly supported the presidential ambitions of Andrew Jackson, Samuel Tilden, Al Smith, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. In the late 1960s, however, political analysts began to detect a shift in the Catholic vote. Many Catholics voters felt unwanted in a changing Democratic Party whose leadership now frowned upon Catholic values. As a result, Catholic voters began to embrace politicians who portrayed themselves as antagonistic to cultural liberalism. Tired of being ridiculed by social engineers, Catholics gave their support to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, because those candidates viewed the local defenders of traditional values as America’s real heroes. Reagan paid tribute to them when he praised the "parents who sacrifice long and hard so their children will know a better life then they’ve known; church and civic leaders who help to feed, clothe, nurse, and teach the needy; millions who have made our nation and our nation’s destiny so very special - unsung heroes who may not have realized their own dreams themselves, but then who reinvest those dreams in their children.

Briskly written, thoroughly researched, and filled with helpful statistics and graphs, The American Catholic Voter takes readers for a political tour upon the highway of American history.

Along the way there is the landmark election of 1800, the fight against anti-Catholic nativism, the age of Lincoln and civil turmoil, the rise of the urban Catholic voter, clashes with the Klan in the 1920s, the famous campaign of 1960, and, in the concluding chapter, the battle of 2004, which promises to be another watershed moment for the Catholic vote in the United States.

In conclusion, Marlin sounds a battle-tested, but hopeful, note:

It has been the contention of this book that for most of our nation’s history the American Catholic voter has been an important contributor to the electoral process. For almost two centuries, the Catholic faithful have united to defend their political turf–their parishes and neighborhoods–and have tried to fend off political assaults from nativists, progressives, eugenicists, and reformers.

In the twenty-first century, practicing Catholics in the public square are quickly learning that while the opposition’s rhetoric may sound more sophisticated or scientific, the level of distaste for Catholicism is the same as in previous eras. Catholics are still viewed by the secular humanists as public villains and in their salons, anti-Catholicism is still an acceptable prejudice.

Today secular humanists are ecstatically confident they have the political upper hand and are busily writing obituaries for the Catholic Church in America. But now as in the past their prejudices blind them from several realities: While the number of practicing Catholics has declined in recent decades, the faithful still represent approximately 9 percent of the total popular vote. Since the bulk of these voters reside in key swing states, Catholics will continue to have a major impact at the polling booth and may determine election results.

The other point the secular humanists miss is this: regardless of the Church’s size, the faith will endure because it has always endured, its members still standing on the solid 2,000-year-old rock of St. Peter. And the Church’s faithful in America will continue to adhere to the tenets of Christ and, like St. Paul at the beginning of the Church, will "fight the good fight" to ensure that their voices are heard in the public square.

The American Catholic Voter is a book for everyone with an interest in the political life of the United States and the vital role of the Christian Faith in the public square. Whatever the outcome of the 2004 elections, Marlin’s work sheds valuable light on how we have arrived in the here and now–and what political challenges, obstacles, and successes the future might hold.

 

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Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved