Cornell University Press

How American Catholics Cleared the Wall between Church and State

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One of the oddest aspects of the 2020 presidential contest is the press’ coverage of Joe Biden’s Roman Catholic faith—strange from the perspective of the man who inspired Biden to go into politics, John F. Kennedy. Unlike the first Roman Catholic president who needed to explain that his membership in the church would not compromise his vow to uphold the U.S. Constitution, Biden’s Catholic faith is part of larger reassurance of decency and return to normalcy. 

A story at CNN in July was indicative of much reporting. It featured a group of university students who had formed a group called, “Christians for Biden,” whose leader described the election as a “battle for the soul of America.” The reporter included a digital ad that used a female voice to say, “That’s Joe,” as visuals showed the candidate “praying, greeting people, and wearing a mask.” If Kennedy had tried that, journalists and academics, not to mention his opponent, Richard M. Nixon, would have objected to violations of the separation of church and state, which is what many Americans, Protestants, and liberals feared about the Roman Catholic church.

How did this happen? How was it that Kennedy needed to affirm an “absolute” separation of church and state but Biden’s faith has become a reason to vote for him? The answer has several layers. One that deserves attention is the irony of Catholic conservatives during the Cold War era who objected to the secularization of America to pave the way for faith-based politics. 

How was it that Kennedy needed to affirm an “absolute” separation of church and state but Biden’s faith has become a reason to vote for him? 

Although prior to 1964, the Democratic Party was the electoral home for most American Catholics, the nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate signaled a realignment of Christianity and American politics. The rise of a conservative movement in the 1950s, spearheaded by William F. Buckley and the magazine he edited, The National Review, was responsible first for injecting a vigorous anti-Communism into the Republican Party that in 1964 gained Barry Goldwater the party’s nomination. 

But it also put Roman Catholicism into play for the GOP. Despite Goldwater’s landslide defeat, American conservatives, many of whom were devout Roman Catholics and understood the American Founding as an outgrowth of their church’s natural law tradition, continued throughout the 1960s to construct a conservative body of thought about both politics and culture. Their argument that politics is downstream from culture also implied that Americans could not maintain their nation’s ideals without a consensus about first principles (including religious ideals). 

But it also put Roman Catholicism into play for the GOP.

As the conservative movement added both evangelical Protestants and working-class Roman Catholics to the Republican’s electoral fold, party leaders and writers cultivated a position in the nation’s politics for which belief in God and older Christian views on sex and marriage were trademarks. Richard John Neuhaus’ widely circulated book, The Naked Public Square (1984), was one indication of this convergence of Christianity and conservatism. 

A former Lutheran pastor who led marches against the Vietnam War, Neuhaus eventually converted to Roman Catholicism and became a defender of both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Not only did conservatives such as Neuhaus insist that America had always been friendly to the nation’s religious groups, but they also contended that resolving questions of national purpose required recourse to America’s religious traditions.

Since the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008, the conservative movement has taken hits from within the Roman Catholic church (e.g., conservatives were too American) and the Republican party (e. g., wars in the Middle East and trade with China were harmful to the American people). The latter of these criticisms explains in part the appeal of Donald Trump. 

Since the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008, the conservative movement has taken hits from within the Roman Catholic church.

It has also left American Catholics arguably more politically divided than they have ever been. According to the political scientist, Mark Rozell, “Among those Catholics who regularly attend religious services, they tend to be more conservative politically [and] vote Republican,” while those who attend religious services “infrequently or not at all tend to be much more heavily Democratic.” 

Nevertheless, despite these consequences which Catholic conservatives would not have approved and could not have predicted, their advocacy for religion’s return to the public square was chiefly responsible for every presidential candidate since 1976 needing to reveal his religious identity not only to gain votes from believers but to prove an authentic American identity.

*Featured photo from Pixabay.

D. G. Hart is Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He is the author of Damning Words and Calvinism. Follow him on Twitter @Oldlife.

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