American, Catholic and Registered to Vote




by George J. Marlin

St. Augustine's Press, 2004 420 pages, $30

To order: (800) 621-2736 or

Catholics first got their foot in the door of American political life when the Revolutionaries discovered the patriotism of men like Charles Carroll of Carroll-ton, the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence. Yet, even after vast waves of immigrants from predominantly Catholic countries changed American demographics forever, there would still be plenty of citizens intent on keeping Catholics in their place. And where was that? Out of elected office.

In The American Catholic Voter, George Marlin, a former director of the New York Port Authority and a one-time New York City mayoral candidate, shows how that's just one thing that hasn't changed, vis a vis Catholics in the public square, since the beginnings of the Republic.

Marlin's broad and enlightening overview of presidential elections in particular looks at personalities, issues and strategies, as well as the hardships Catholics have faced and the impact they have made. There are insightful looks at the political machines that grew up in Boston and New York, along with a careful analysis of the campaign run by Al Smith, the first Catholic to represent a major party in a presidential race. Responding to charges that Rome would have undue influence in Washington if a Catholic were in the White House, Smith wrote in a 1927 magazine essay: “If you can conjure up … a conflict, how would a Protestant resolve it? Obviously by the dictates of his conscience. That is exactly what a Catholic would do.”

Later Marlin retraces how John F. Kennedy took Smith's reassurances a step further when he famously promised that his decisions in office would be utterly unaffected by his faith.

The latter half of Marlin's book shows how much society has changed since Camelot — to the point where a Catholic running for high office not only has not properly formed his conscience on important life-and-death issues, but actually rejects the right choice as some “imposition of morality on a pluralistic society.”

To show the devolution from Smith onward, Marlin weaves histories of campaigns taking advantage of disenchanted Catholics, the rise of social engineering and how it was put to use in emasculating the Catholic vote, the emergence of “cafeteria Catholicism” and the ways in which political opportunists sought to assuage the feelings of succeeding generations of Nativist anti-Catholics.

Sure, JFK had a hard time running for office in the wake of yet another permutation of the old papist-hating Know-Nothing Party. But even Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, hailed as an architect of the Vatican II vision of religious freedom, thought it was “idiocy” for Kennedy to sever any connection between religious faith and public service.

A blend of popular history and scholarship, The American Catholic Voter provides useful charts illustrating the Catholic vote in cities and neighborhoods across the decades. One point of concern here: There are numerous typographical errors in the text. Were the editors more careful about checking the statistics in the charts? One hopes so.

In the concluding section, Marlin helps answer the puzzling question of how a majority of Catholics could vote for pro-abortion tickets in recent contests. This part of the discussion could have benefited by a fuller consideration of the fast-growing Hispanic vote.

The American Catholic Voter is an important work for any principled Catholic who is contemplating public office. Ditto the Catholic voter who will bring his faith to the ballot box Nov. 2.

John Burger is the Register's news editor.