Elections come and go. Candidates are voted in and out
of office. Power exchanges handsusually smoothly, but sometimes with
commotion, occasionally with lawsuits thrown in for good measure. Its
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
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 werent 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.
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 Societys
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 Americas Catholic working
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
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 countrys 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
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 Americas 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 theyve known;
church and civic leaders who help to feed, clothe, nurse, and teach the
needy; millions who have made our nation and our nations 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
nations 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 turftheir parishes
and neighborhoodsand 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 oppositions 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
Churchs 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 Churchs 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,
Marlins work sheds valuable light on how we have arrived in the here
and nowand what political challenges, obstacles, and successes the future might hold.