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The Catholic Voter in the Twentieth Century

by Matthew Redinger on Mar 30, 2000

 

       What does it mean to be a Catholic voter in the United States?
 
            During this election year, some politicians appear convinced
       that denominational loyalty is a tool of political manipulation. The
       mobilization of a "Catholic bloc vote" is increasingly viewed as
       politically necessary as political candidates strive to forge
       constituencies in preparation for the November election.
 
            In John McCain's abortive attempt to seize the Republican
       nomination, he appealed for the "Catholic vote." George W. Bush, after
       his address at anti-Catholic Bob Jones University, had to explain his
       decision to speak there in the face of a feared Catholic backlash. House
       Speaker Dennis Hastert's refusal and subsequent capitulation over the
       appointment of the House's first Catholic chaplain clearly indicates
       that the Republican Party remains anxious about Catholic voters'
       perception of the GOP. On the Democratic front, Al Gore, intent on
       shoring up what has been a core constituency for his party since the
       mid-nineteenth century, has curried favor with Catholics.
 
            In spite of the fact that politicians have seen Catholics as a
       political force either to be feared or wooed in this century, a Catholic
       bloc vote simply does not exist. Throughout the twentieth century,
       Catholics have proved far too politically and socially diverse and
       sophisticated to constitute a cohesive unit.
 
            While the McCain campaign tried to mobilize an anti-Bush
       Catholic vote in Republican primaries, so leading Catholics in the 1930s
       worked to forge such a bloc against Franklin Roosevelt. The issue at
       hand was Roosevelt's friendly approach to Mexico within the context of
       the Mexican Revolution's persecution of Catholics. To Catholics in the
       United States, the anticlerical revolution in Mexico presented a
       challenge to a dearly held value in America — the right to worship
       freely.
 
            One source of Catholic activism in the past two months was
       George W. Bush's justification for his Bob Jones University address.
       While Bush claimed that he did not support the school's anti-Catholic
       heritage, he refused to distance himself from the institution or its
       positions until after he had won the South Carolina primary.
 
            Such a double standard by the Roosevelt administration lay at
       the foundation of Catholic activism in the 1930s. Under Roosevelt's new
       "Good Neighbor Policy," the United States refused to intervene in the
       Mexican Revolution. Many Catholics, however, observed that since the
       government had intervened previously on behalf of persecuted Jews in
       Russia, inaction in Mexico justified calls for the mobilization of a
       bloc vote against Roosevelt's 1936 reelection bid.
 
            Baltimore's Cardinal James Curley assured Roosevelt that 30
       million Catholic votes were his, if he supported a pro-Catholic agenda
       in Mexico. Unfortunately for Curley, the Catholic bloc never
       materialized on election day. Catholics in the United States were far
       more concerned with making it through the Depression than they were
       about international affairs.
 
            John McCain's efforts to attract Catholic support were as
       well-worn as his goals. McCain's telephone canvassing in the Michigan
       primary used a pre-recorded "Catholic Voter Alert" to paint Bush as
       anti-Catholic. This recalls the 1936 presidential campaign, when leading
       Catholic clergymen encouraged priests to use the pulpit to apply that
       same paint to Roosevelt.
 
            These tactics, then and now, have drawn criticism from within
       the church itself. Detroit's Cardinal Adam J. Maida censured the
       politicization of religion by McCain's Michigan canvass. In 1936,
       Chicago's Cardinal George Mundelein both condemned Curley's effort and
       provided support for Roosevelt when he arranged for Notre Dame
       University to grant the president an honorary doctorate for his
       dedication to religious liberty and his efforts to end the economic
       emergency of the Depression.
 
            Ironically, not economic crisis but a distinct lack of economic
       problems is likely to prevent the formation of a Catholic bloc vote this
       year. Prosperity promises to lay an ax at the root of bloc mobilization
       as effectively as Depression did 65 years ago.
 
            Catholic support of Roosevelt in the 1930s arose out of
       confidence in the president's ability to continue America's economic
       recovery. Catholics in 2000 are economically comfortable, and will
       probably not care about George Bush's gaffes and perceived lack of good
       judgment.
 
            This is a lesson today's politicians might well heed. Whenever a
       political candidate strives to mobilize a Catholic vote — or the vote
       of any private interest group — it would be wise to remember that such
       groups have demonstrated remarkable diversity. They simply cannot be
       categorized into narrowly proscribed electoral categories. This must
       have been as clear to John McCain after the Republican primaries as it
       was to Archbishop Curley in November 1936.
 
            As always, Catholics remain divided over the basic issues with
       which political candidates strive to manipulate them today. Forging a
       Catholic bloc vote didn't work in 1936, and it simply will not work in
       2000.


Matthew Alan Redinger is an assistant professor of history at Montana State University-Billings, and a writer for the History News Service.