Had her family not joined the Wasilla Assembly of God when she was four years old, Sarah Palin would most likely be today — together with her adversaries Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, etc. — one of America’s most prominent Catholic politicians. She was, after all, baptized by a Catholic priest — according to my information, at Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in Richland, Washington, on June 7, 1964.
Catholics represent one-quarter of the U.S. electorate, and according to surveys, closer to one-third of those actually voting in American elections. They (I must use this pronoun because, although Catholic, I am a Canadian citizen) have long been associated, as a constituency, with the Democratic Party.
For various reasons, abortion has been presented in the mainstream media as if it were the single issue of concern to the “old men” in the Catholic hierarchy. With this comes the notion that Catholics who fail to vote Democratic or “progressive” are backward and insulated people, whose obedience to the hierarchy on this one issue obviates all political thought. This is an argument on a level with the assertion that only a racist could vote against Barack Obama.
Catholics may have discovered America, but in the parts ruled by the British Crown they were once extremely unwelcome. As a fresh Catholic convert, one of my first pleasures was attending the Mass at Old St. Joseph’s Church in Philadelphia, just a couple of blocks from Independence Hall. This venerable Jesuit establishment (celebrating its 275th anniversary this year) was the first place in the entire British Empire where Catholics could legally meet and pray, after the English Reformation. By the time the United States became independent, Catholics were less than one percent of the population — many having fled north with my own Protestant ancestors (the United Empire Loyalists), counting their chances better under the British Crown than with the American Revolutionists.
Populist campaigns to purge American politics of Catholic influence date back at least to the “Know Nothing” movement of the 1850s, itself a reaction to the first waves of Catholic immigration from Ireland and Germany. The belief that Catholics are a voting bloc, waiting for instructions from the Antichrist in Rome, survives today in the much milder form of questions about the authority of bishops to deny Communion to apostate Catholic politicians.
Through the 20th century, the Catholic electorate evolved as a force characteristically “conservative” on social questions, “liberal” on economic ones. For the two major parties, the task was to drive the wedge into this constituency in the right way. The Democrats generally did a better job of it, and through labor unions and the like enjoyed preponderant Catholic support for many decades. Today, the struggle over the Hispanic vote provides an echo of this, as once again the Democrats appeal more to Hispanic collective and tribal interests, Republicans more to their individual principles and beliefs.
The abortion issue has been a red herring. All professing Christians — not just Roman Catholics — were opposed to abortion until very recently in historical time. It is the mere existence of a visible Catholic hierarchy that makes Catholic rebels against Divine commandments more visible through the media than Protestant rebels. And yet, evangelical America is not exactly silent on the abortion issue; only the “mainstream” Protestant churches acquiesce, which are anyway fading toward extinction.
I have never met Sarah Palin’s parents, nor did I live in Wasilla, Alaska, in the late 1960s, when they resolved to leave the Roman Church — perhaps more consequentially than they realized at the time. My comments must thus be restricted to observing that not only Palin, but seemingly all members of her extended family, take the Christian religion seriously. Moreover, Palin’s decision to let her son, Trig, live — even though diagnosed in the womb with Down Syndrome — speaks more than many sermons.
Should Catholics, looking at the vice-presidential portion of the party tickets, support Sarah Palin because she shares their most fundamental moral beliefs? Or should they instead support Joe Biden because, while he openly rejects Christian teachings, he is nevertheless nominally a fellow Catholic today?
It is this old question that the liberal media try to confuse by making an issue about the pope and his bishops “interfering” in the working of American democracy. Each Catholic must decide, individually, how to cast the secret ballot.
Do you vote with your conscience, or do you vote with your tribe?