I distinctly remember a moment in sixth grade when I took interest in a Kerry-Edwards ’04 sticker on my history teacher’s desk. I found the paraphernalia so perplexing that I immediately went home and asked my parents a question I will never forget: “How could my teacher possibly be Catholic and a Democrat?”
Growing up, I naively assumed being Catholic meant you were a Republican. Before you laugh at my ignorance, I will say that I had some pretty strong research to back my case. I had participated in a straw poll in second grade, during which only one student would admit that he (read: his parents) supported Al Gore. I went to a Catholic school, and my family went to church every Sunday. We supported Bush. Politics seemed pretty cut and dry.
Aging makes man wiser, and I now realize that nothing is that simple. As I became more interested in the political stage, I was surprised to see how wrong my original assumption was. I discovered the seemingly impregnable nexus between Catholics and the Democratic Party. I found out that historically, most Catholics (and Catholic politicians—Al Smith, John F. Kennedy, and Geraldine A. Ferraro, not to mention Joe Biden, and Kerry himself) belonged to the Democratic Party. My fallacious thinking was based purely on selection bias. Unbeknownst to me, not every Catholic lives in the suburbs and sends her children to parochial school. My elementary school may have taught me many things, but none were about diversity. It took me a long time to figure out that the suburban Catholic demographic is vastly different than the Catholic demographic as a whole. For example, I do not think the notion of an “immigrant” had even occurred to me.
Looking back on my youthful ponderings, I believe I unwittingly sensed the nascence of a national trend. Perhaps better known as “suburbanization,” the trend highlights the historic tendency of Catholics to participate fully in society and, by extension, to fight for the preservation of the institutions that helped them achieve the American Dream.
Despite my incorrect assumptions early on, a look at the panoply of Catholics in the upper echelon of American governance now indicates a general shift toward the GOP. Two of the top four candidates for the presidential nomination were Catholics, as is the vice presidential nominee, the Speaker of the House, and the five Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents. While Catholic Democrats still outnumber their rivals in the Senate, it is worth noting that almost half of the Republicans who came to power in the 2010 “wave election” are members of the Roman Catholic Church.
The trend has created a new tossup demographic, as, losing their connection with the Democratic Party, Catholic voters have become very important in electoral politics. Political strategists on both sides are greedily eyeing the Catholic vote, and they consistently peddle theories designed to justify and predict the trend lines.
One of the most plausible of these is the common theory that the past 20 years have been characterized by increasing Democratic antipathy to Catholic values and social positions. This argument is corroborated by the current lawsuit lobbied against the Obama administration by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops over the government’s mandate that birth control must be offered by insurance plans. A countervailing notion claims that the GOP’s social moderation and the diminishing power of Evangelical Christians within the party attract open-minded Catholics. A third possibility revolves around Catholic anticommunism and the cohort that came of age in the GOP’s golden days during the Reagan Era.
Each of these conjectures likely possesses some grain of truth. They each identify specific reasons why certain subgroups of Catholics may have reconsidered their party affiliation within the past quarter century. Yet they all seem to be missing the broader point. By attributing various explanations for three distinct types of Catholics, the punditocracy is implicitly acknowledging that the Catholic segment of America has finally arrived.
Fifty years ago, the Catholic Church was, politically speaking, nothing more than an interest group. Catholics in the early 20th century were mostly immigrants with the number one priority of feeding their families. This was no easy task in a prejudiced America that expressed a vocal populist sentiment verging on nativism. Catholics could not rely on society, so they relied on each other. Inner-city bosses and machine politicians easily exploited this fact in a successful attempt to cater to a growing voting bloc. Catholics formed powerful unions, like the Knights of Labor, to represent their interests collectively in a society keen on suppressing them. This lasted for decades as Catholics continued to vote along family lines.
That Catholics are now primarily divided between the two main political parties demonstrates an end to the Democrats’ monopoly on one of America’s largest religious denominations. As a quarter of the American population, Catholics are no longer a demographic swayable with pandering and petty promises. As fully engaged participants in this society, they have the luxury of being able to consider their options carefully. Different Catholics may come to different conclusions. At least now that is their choice to make.
John F. M. Kocsis ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.