From Outsiders to Voters: How Catholics Became Americans


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It was James Madison who began the first clause of the First Amendment this way: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” Strong stuff. Especially when you consider that, from the moment in 1607 when the founders of Jamestown stepped off the boat, the governments of the English colonies in America meddled freely in the exercise of religion and had no qualms about establishing one denomination at the expense of all the others.

It was understood among supporters and opponents of the Bill of Rights that every American of any religion, or no religion, had the inalienable right to participate fully in the political life of their very young nation. And that didn’t sit well with some people, among them John Jay, future first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a speech before the New York Legislature, Jay conceded that full civil liberty was extended to Americans of any faith, “except the professors of the religion of the church of Rome, who ought not to hold lands in, or be admitted to a participation of the civil rights enjoyed by the members of this state.” Jay’s proposal was voted down, but other states were not as open-minded as New York.

States that barred Catholics from building churches or holding public office included all of New England, North Carolina, South Carolina and New Jersey. Nonetheless, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and Maryland welcomed Catholics into American political life. Maryland voters, Catholics and Protestants alike, sent Charles Carroll — the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence — to the very first U.S. Senate.

The first time Catholics exercised their influence was in the election of 1800. Catholic workingmen in New York City voted Republican (as the Democrats were known at that time — yes, it can be confusing, but that’s a story for another article) because the laboring class believed the Republicans and their candidate, Thomas Jefferson, were on their side, while they perceived the Federalists, led by John Adams, to be elitists. New York was a swing state, and the Catholic vote in New York City helped to send Jefferson to the White House.

In the 1840s and 1850s, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Germany, who had fled revolution, and Ireland, who had fled famine, poured into the United States, a new political movement sprang up in reaction to the newcomers. The Nativists, better known as the Know Nothings, were vehemently anti-immigrant, especially regarding Catholic immigrants. Even sophisticated gentlemen such as Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, warned that Catholic immigrants were agents of Rome, come to undermine America’s liberties and hand over the country to the pope.

The Know Nothings became an influential political force whose candidates were elected mayors of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans and Washington. But they did not limit themselves to politics — in cities and towns from Bath, Maine, to Galveston, Texas, Nativist mobs destroyed Catholic churches and institutions and burned the homes of U.S. Catholics.

In 1855, a rising Illinois Republican politician, Abraham Lincoln, wrote to his best friend, Joshua Speed, “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. … When the Know Nothings get control, [the Declaration of Independence] will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’”

In spite of Lincoln’s sympathy for Catholic immigrants, in the election of 1860, the Irish voted for the Democrat, Stephen Douglas.  The fledgling Democratic political machines in the cities, where the Irish lived in great numbers and often in appalling conditions, had reached out to the immigrants, winning their loyalty at the polling places. Lincoln’s support for emancipation of the slaves may have been muted, but it was enough to make the Irish nervous.

Most of them were unskilled laborers at the bottom of the economic ladder, who were paid miserable wages to do the dirty jobs native-born Americans didn’t want. The only people who worked for less were free blacks. The emancipation of 4 million newly freed blacks would mean economic disaster for the Irish, and so they voted for Douglas. But in this election, the Catholic vote did not turn the tide — Lincoln won.

After the Civil War, the alliance between immigrant Catholics and the Democratic Party solidified, thanks to the party’s policy that gave civil-service jobs to immigrants and opposed legislation that would have banned alcohol.

As more Catholic immigrants poured into the country from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe, the Democrats grew ever stronger in the cities. By the end of the 19th century, Republicans were complaining that elections were being decided in “the slums of Chicago, Brooklyn and New York.”

The remark was political sour grapes, but it was also true. Catholic voters had become a powerhouse, and they flexed their political muscle in the election of 1928.

That year, the Democrats nominated Alfred Smith for president. He had spent his childhood and early adulthood in a sprawling, overwhelmingly immigrant Catholic neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. As a protégé of Tammany Hall (a New York political organization that played a major role in controlling state politics from the 1790s to the 1960s), Smith learned how to win the loyalty of his desperately poor constituents by finding them what they needed — food, coal, a doctor, a lawyer or a job. But he also learned that government could do more.

In the aftermath of the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, in which 145 Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls died, Gov. Smith pushed through laws that required unprecedented workplace safety standards.

But outside of the Catholic strongholds of the Northeast and the Midwest, there was an enormous body of voters who were still hostile to immigrants and viewed Smith as a pawn of the pope.

When he traveled by train across the rural heartland of America, Smith was chagrined to see crosses burning along his route and to find activists passing out leaflets asserting that he was a bootlegger and the women of his family were harlots.

On Election Day, 80% of Catholic voters turned out for Smith, but it wasn’t enough. Smith was trounced by his Republican opponent, Herbert Hoover, who garnered 444 electoral votes to Smith’s 87 and 21.4 million popular votes to Smith’s 15 million. Franklin Roosevelt, a rising star of the Democratic Party, sent out a nationwide questionnaire to Democratic leaders asking why Smith had lost; 55.5% replied that Smith went down to defeat because he was a Catholic.

Thirty-two years would pass before another Catholic ran for the presidency, and by the time John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts was nominated, the old Catholic voting bloc was already beginning to crack. In 1952, 55% of Germans, 53% of Irish and 50% of Poles deserted the Democrats and voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As soon as JFK announced his candidacy, the Catholic question came up again. To assuage any misgivings Protestants and secular intellectuals might have about him, JFK gave an interview to a reporter from Look magazine in which he declared, “Whatever one’s religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution.”

Nonetheless, JFK’s Catholicism remained an issue among Protestants throughout the campaign of 1960. To his credit, the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, never tried to capitalize on his opponent’s religion.

On election night, results were tight. JFK won 34.2 million votes to Nixon’s 34.1 million. Catholics who had voted for Eisenhower came back to the Democratic fold to vote for Kennedy. It was the last time Catholics would vote in such substantial and predictable numbers.

The post-World War II era saw Catholic families moving out of the old ethnic neighborhoods in the cities to the suburbs. These suburban Catholics were less tribal and more assimilated than their ancestors had been. Then came the turbulence of the late 1960s: The failure of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” program to improve the lives of millions trapped in poverty, the race riots of 1967 and the growing opposition to the Vietnam War combined to make Catholics look around for an alternative to the Democrats. They found their man in Nixon; in the 1968 election, 33% of Catholics voted for him.

In addition to chaos in the streets, there was confusion in the pews. In the wake of Vatican II, believing Catholics suddenly found themselves confronted with, as political commentator Michael Barone has said, “vacillating bishops, rebellious priests and nuns and revisionist theologians.” One of the results of the confusion was that, little by little, U.S. Catholics became almost indistinguishable from their non-Catholic neighbors. By 1980, researchers found that three out of four Catholics surveyed thought it was no sin for engaged couples to engage in premarital sex, eight out of 10 approved the use of artificial contraception and seven out of 10 favored legalized abortion. (This is according to George Marlin’s The American Catholic Voter, p. 287. He quoted from Msgr. George Kelly’s The Battle for the American Church, p. 457.) Those statistics have barely budged.

Today, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can rely on a Catholic bloc. It doesn’t exist anymore. Nonetheless, during an election year, it is a predictable exercise among journalists, pundits and pollsters to pretend that there is still a robust, influential Catholic vote. But consider this: In six out of the last 11 presidential elections, Catholics voted for candidates whose positions flew in the face of Catholic teaching. And according to a poll published this summer by The Washington Post and ABC News, 61% of Catholics plan to vote for Hillary Clinton, while 37% plan to vote for Donald Trump.

Catholics, who struggled so long to have a voice in American politics and then carried their religious faith and secular aspirations with them to the ballot box, rarely do so anymore. Hillary Clinton’s unabashed support of abortion and same-sex “marriage” will not lose her a large percentage of voters who happen to be Catholic. Nor can Donald Trump’s opposition to those issues guarantee that Catholics will vote for him.

(Note to readers: For a full history of Catholic political life in the United States, see The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact, by George J. Marlin.)

Thomas J. Craughwell

is the author of Stealing Lincoln’s Body and Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee.

He is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.