American Catholics have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, but a combination of episcopal intransigence, Democratic abortion policies and a primitive cast to US society have brought about a change.
If, as increasingly seems likely, it is shown that there was Russian interference in last year’s U.S. elections, Vladimir Putin will not be the only Slav to have influenced the outcome. Unless Putin’s operatives literally stuffed ballot boxes, a Pole named John Paul II played a bigger role.
There was a time when people quipped that Catholic baptismal records doubled as Democratic Party membership rolls. Catholics who were, by and large, urban, blue-collar, and ethnically identifiable were vertebra in the backbone of Democratic support.
Yet, in the most recent election, at least half of American Catholics who voted favored the Republicans. That was particularly true among blue-collar and ethnic Catholics. What happened?
The first, and perhaps most important thing, was the appointment by John Paul II of bishops noteworthy for their obsession with reproductive and other sexual morality that went beyond the Church’s ancient opposition to abortion. For a candidate for episcopal ordination, Paul VI’s Humanae vitae, “Paul’s Epistle to the Fallopians,” counted as much as the Creed. Those bishops also, for the most part, shared John Paul’s trait of intransigence.
At the same time, the Democratic Party leadership increasingly made support for abortion a core element of their platform, a move almost calculated to alienate Catholics. An often-unbridgeable rift opened between “official” Catholicism and the party. But, had things stayed at that, some modus vivendi was possible.
However, episcopal intransigence set firmly when the national health care program introduced during Barak Obama’s presidency required provision for artificial birth control by employer insurance schemes. Bishops’ rhetoric reached hysterical levels. It almost seemed as if a teenaged kid with a condom in his wallet was the moral equivalent of a Nazi death camp commandant.
Bishops opposed the Obama health plan as an attack on the freedom of religion. This fed into the ill-disguised racism harbored by not a few “ethnic” Catholics toward the first black president and gave them a respectable cover for expressing anti-Obama sentiments.
It also drew those Catholics, along with the bishops, into a peculiar alliance with the more fundamentalist elements of American evangelicalism. (American evangelicalism is broader than it is characterized outside the country. In some areas – the environment and African refugees, for example – evangelicals are more in tune with Pope Francis than the U.S. bishops appear to be.)
When the bishops, led by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, tried to get other religious leaders to sign on to their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign for religious liberty, the only Christians who signed up were the more extreme elements of evangelicalism. Of course, since the word “fortnight” is not part of American English, some both pro and con might not have understood what it was about. Leading bishops began to call for banning insufficiently deferential Catholic politicians (generally Democrats) from Communion, with no significant push-back from their fellow bishops.
Then, as gender issues, especially homosexuality and same-sex marriage, came to the fore in society, the bishops found themselves once again aligned with fundamentalists.
The result of all this was that the strident fundamentalism of one wing of evangelicalism and the strident Catholic bishops found themselves in the same camp. That opened a significant number of Catholics to blandishments from the Republican Party, which had thrown in its lot with right-wing evangelicals ever since its “Southern strategy” of the 1970s directed the party’s efforts to pandering to America’s endemic racism as a way of drawing white voters from the Democrats, especially in the Bible Belt where fundamentalism dominates.
As all this was happening, economic changes were dealing blows to America’s blue-collar workers. When they were young, there was a tacit contract between themselves and America. Basically, if they graduated from high school, stayed out of trouble, and submitted to the military draft they would one day come home to work next to their fathers in a factory and own a home in their old neighborhood.
But, the world changed. Instead of being drafted and sent to see exotic parts of the world for a few years, they wound up at war in Vietnam. Then, when they came home, often wounded in mind and spirit, if not body, they were not welcomed as heroes. And they found that the factory where their father had made a comfortable middle-class living had closed and the jobs had moved overseas.
They had kept their side of the “contract,” but somewhere along the way, the rules had changed. For people who were not attuned to world economic trends, it looked like a betrayal. But who were the betrayers?
This is where the basically primitive nature of America took over. Just as in primitive societies elsewhere, American society assumes that if something bad happens, someone is causing the problem. There is personal blame. Instead of hexes, we have torts, and our witch doctors are called lawyers, but the phenomenon is the same. The response is to exorcize the evil. It does not take much creativity to imagine Americans looking for someone to sue in the event of an earthquake.
And the Republicans identified the evil ones: LGBT people, illegal immigrants, foreign countries, refugees, Hispanics, Muslims, big corporations, educated “eggheads” on the East and West coasts and tacitly, those ever-handy scapegoats, African-Americans.
John Paul’s (and, subsequently Benedict’s) intransigent bishops and the equally intransigent Democrats who made abortion the litmus test of membership in the party cracked the old ties between Catholics and that party. As the bishops drifted further and further into positions generally identified with fundamentalist evangelical Protestants, they engendered an atmosphere where those evangelicals could appear more in line with Catholic thought than other political groups such as the Democrats.
So, when those people whose birth certificates once seemed to say “Democrat” went looking for the evil forces that had betrayed them, they were ready to listen to a Republican Party that had itself become fundamentalist evangelical Protestantism’s political arm.
Father Bill Grimm is an American Catholic priest who now lives and works in Tokyo.