Democrats and Catholics III: The Traditional alliance Crumbles

Editor ‘s note: This is the third in a series of articles on Catholic voting behavior. See Stuart Rothenburg and Steve Lilienthal, “Campaign Notes: Why the Catholic Vote Will Be Decisive in 1988” (May) and James Castelli, “The Democrats’ Secret Weapon: Will Catholics Put Dukakis in the Oval Office?” (June).

The traditional alliance of Catholics and secular liberals within the Democratic Party was always, if not exactly a marriage of convenience, at least a union in which neither partner was completely candid with the other concerning their deepest thoughts and feelings. Catholic liberals, to the degree that they were at all reflective concerning their beliefs, based them on the papal social encyclicals and on the natural law, both rooted in the Middle Ages and earlier. Most secular liberals were pragmatists and moral relativists to one degree or another, for whom the Catholic intellectual terrain was totally alien.

The two groups (who were, of course, not the only constituents making up the Democratic Party) could agree broadly on an agenda—the welfare state, labor unions, racial justice, foreign aid, and anti-Communism. They were, however, travelers who had arrived at the same destination by going around the world in opposite directions.

All this changed abruptly in 1968, when the Democratic Party moved sharply to the left. Although the radicals almost destroyed the Party that year, they won “through the system” what they lost in the streets. By 1972 major parts of the New Left agenda had been incorporated into George McGovern’s platform and, despite some apparent attempts by Jimmy Carter to move back towards the center, the radical shifts of twenty years ago seem permanently embedded in the Democratic fabric.

To refer simply to the Party’s leftward drift, however, does not do justice to what has occurred. It is not merely that the Democratic Party is now closer to socialism than it was then, or that it has systematically backed away from its earlier anti-Communism, but that it has experienced an intellectual revolution. This can be traced in relatively short-range terms, through the various movements of the 1960s and the way they successfully insinuated themselves into the party structure at all levels. But the ultimate explanation is long-term—the left wing of the Democratic Party is now nothing less than the principal American political expression of the culture of modernism itself, a culture which has been brewing since before the turn of the century.

The triumph of the New Left after 1968 did not merely require a leftward shift in established political positions but the adoption of a whole new culture, a new way of apprehending reality. Not only were American institutions attacked, often savagely, for alleged immoral policies—the war in Vietnam, racism—the very legitimacy of those institutions was called into question. The “hard” institutions of society which embody actual power—the government and the corporations—survived relatively unscathed, because of their power of enforcement. It was the “soft” institutions which depend upon moral authority alone—churches, schools, the family itself—which suffered the deepest and most lasting damage. The essence of the New Left’s counter-cultural movement was an obligatory attitude of doubt and cynicism directed, one by one, against every institution claiming any kind of moral authority, the systematic rejection of any attempt to “impose” such authority on free individuals from the outside.

This inevitable culmination of the entire culture of modernism has, to be sure, embodied itself in the Democratic Party only in imperfect ways, since no political application of an idea can ever be pure. Perhaps most Democrats have no sense that this process is even occurring. Yet in numerous ways—through the kinds of judges it appoints, the policies it encourages or imposes in the schools, the programs fostered by its numerous and always growing social agencies—a Democratic administration acts as the agent of this cultural revolution. It is the revelation of this fact, whether clearly or obscurely, which as much as anything explains the massive shift of Democratic voters to the Republican presidential candidates of 1972, 1980, and 1984.

In 1972, George McGovern could feel ill-used when tagged with the slogan “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.” Within a few years, however, the tag was if anything too restrained in its summary of the liberal Democratic agenda. Even in the fateful summer of 1968 it would have seemed extreme to predict that before long the Party would be allotting quotas of delegates to homosexuals, or that the legality of abortion would cease to be even a discussable issue.

Most Democrats would be affronted if their party were now dubbed the party of pornography. No Democratic platform endorses anyone’s “right” to buy or sell obscene products. But it is mathematically predictable that judges appointed under liberal Democratic auspices will undermine existing legal restraints on such traffic, and Democratic administrations make it far more likely that there will be tax-funded programs in the schools making use of materials many parents regard as pornographic.

As the abortion issue shows most vividly, the climate of the Democratic Party now simply makes irrelevant the “personal beliefs” of its individual members, including its presidential candidates. The dynamic of skepticism and moral relativism is simply built into the party structure and cannot be resisted. However offensive particular Democrats might find pornography or abortion, the Party denies them a political philosophy which would allow principled opposition to such practices.

The obsessive liberal effort to identify and champion an endlessly expanding list of “rights” is a major index of the problem, along with the highly cultivated rhetoric of “compassion.” The Party’s approach to social problems is highly subjective, not proceeding on principle or philosophical reflection but simply by endorsing the claims of every self-defined group of society’s “victims.” The Party has no way of rejecting the claims of militant special interest groups because it has excluded even the possibility of objective moral argument, in favor of emotive complaints about “oppression.” To be a fervent Democrat now requires being an equally fervent moral relativist.

If George McGovern was the first presidential candidate to embody those tendencies, he was still linked with older values, in that much of his outlook seemed shaped by the residual and liberalized evangelical Protestantism of his youth. Jimmy Carter appeared to be a genuine throwback to a previous age, someone who would actually reverse the Party’s leftward movement. Whether or not he sincerely tried, the forces of modernism were already so deeply entrenched that the effort was doomed to fail.

In Michael Dukakis the Democrats seem to have found their first national leader who embodies to his fingertips this moral revolution, perhaps most of all because his whole personality appears conventional, non-ideological, pragmatic. Although exploiting the image of the warm, emotional Greek subculture when it suits his purposes, he remains Zorba the Accountant, in Joseph Sobran’s devastating phrase.

The triumph of the culture of modernism means the movement of ideas from the self-consciously rebellious segments of society—”bohemians,” “beats,” “hippies”—to its respectable mainstream. Governor Dukakis is a true believer in the values of modernism precisely in his lack of passion or display concerning them. For him the legality of abortion, for example, is simply a self-evident truth.

As yet not enough is known about his early life to judge whether this has always been so. As the son of Greek immigrant parents, raised in the Orthodox Church, his formation ought to have been very different, suggesting that at some point there was a wrenching break with his upbringing. I have met some Orthodox (like members of many other communities) for whom the Church is mostly a focal point of ethnic identity, supported because it serves useful community functions. Dukakis speaks today as if he were a kind of unreflecting believer for whom religion was highly compartmentalized and who has experienced no particular anguish in harmonizing himself with the times.

As the first Eastern Orthodox to run for president, Dukakis resembles in this regard the first Roman Catholic to succeed in that effort. Whether or not there is something in the air of Massachusetts which breeds such results, Dukakis and Kennedy appear similar in their self-conscious pragmatism and the corresponding absence of any strong religious sense. They are also alike in that both have had prominent prelates willing to run interference for them in the church.

While admirable in many ways, the late Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston at times acted almost like a house chaplain to the Kennedy family, as in his intemperate and emotional outburst against those who questioned Jacqueline Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis. This year the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in North America, Archbishop Iakavos, has lashed out at Dukakis’ Orthodox critics (“small people”) and publicly misstated the governor’s standing in the Church. Rather than being in good standing, as the Archbishop insisted, Dukakis is excluded from the sacraments because he has never had his marriage blessed.

The Archbishop’s claims have been publicly disputed by others in the Orthodox community, including Bishop Kallistos Ware, an Englishman who is possibly the church’s outstanding theologian today. Bishop Kallistos particularly expressed his “outrage” at Dukakis’ position on abortion, which Archbishop Iakavos justifies by reference to Governor Mario Cuomo. (The evasions sharpened and honed by prominent Catholics over the years are now ready to work for the first Eastern Orthodox to venture into these waters.)

Dukakis perhaps best summed up the moral world which he and his fellow liberals inhabit when he said at an abortion rally in 1986, “I don’t know when life begins; I may never know,” an utterance remarkable both for its obvious imprecision (no one denies that the fetus is alive) and for its making a virtue of ignorance—he did not promise to study and meditate on the question but actually offered, his agnosticism as a badge of virtue.

Although his motives seem purely political, there may also be concealed passions at work in his pro-abortion stance. In 1970, before it had become a major national issue, he introduced bills to legalize abortion in Massachusetts and said he did so at the request of Bill Baird, a fanatical anti-Catholic and a pro-abortion zealot so extreme that others in his camp are embarrassed by him. As governor, Dukakis once held up the entire state budget for a year because it forbade state funding of abortion.

He has been similarly forthright about homosexuality, going so far as to hire prominent homosexual militants as advisors and liaison agents. A cooperative media have made it appear that he is disliked by homosexuals, some of whom jeered him for saying that children are better off with a father and a mother than under other arrangements. But this minimal bow in the direction of the traditional family is the only deviation Dukakis has made from the homosexual agenda. (He has also, for good measure, vetoed a bill requiring the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public-school classrooms.)

On the other side, one of the unexpected fruits of the Reagan administration has been the way in which its most articulate spokesmen for traditional moral values have been Catholics—Secretary of Education William Bennett and Justice Antonin Scalia most prominently, Justice Anthony Kennedy as a genuine possibility.

Although the Kennedy administration is often considered the political “coming of age” of American Catholics, it is the Reagan administration which has been the real climax of that phenomenon. Anyone with an even superficial acquaintance with the Washington scene is aware of the numerous Catholics who have achieved influential positions in government agencies and in the shaping of public policy. Given the relative youth of many of these people, their influence in future Republican administrations is likely only to increase.

This is at least initially surprising, given the historic association of Catholics with the Democratic Party. Indeed, more than a few of the people in question are recent converts to the Party one of whose earlier standard bearers (James G. Blaine) permitted a Protestant clerical supporter to utter the fatally odious phrase branding the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.”

Curbstone sociology would have it that Catholics have been voting Republican for the obvious reason that their social situation has improved. If Father Andrew Greeley’s researches are accurate, Irish-American Catholics are on the whole one of the most affluent groups in the country. Some then argue that Catholics are ungrateful in turning Republican, since it was primarily the Democratic Party which made possible the Catholic laboring man’s economic rise.

But here curbstone sociology is probably wrong, because there are numerous reasons besides economics for which people affiliate with political movements. Until fairly recently, most Catholic scholars who discussed the Constitution expressed opinions largely consonant with Justice Scalia’s position on these “social issues.” This was certainly true of the most influential American Catholic thinker on these subjects, Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, whose views on the Constitution, and the dangers of secularism, would be denounced as obscurantist and reactionary if he were alive to express them today.

Secretary Bennett has praised the role of classical languages in education, for which he has been duly denounced by, among others, an association of classical scholars. Bennett has acknowledged that his own Jesuit education gave him this enduring sense of the classics’ importance. Prior to the 1960s, Jesuit high schools were distinguished by, among other things, their unshaken conviction of the classics’ value, at a time when many secular schools had abandoned them. Today, however, Jesuit schools have themselves drastically deemphasized the study of the classics, even for young Jesuits, and promising signs of revival appear mainly in secular institutions.

The study of the classics is hardly a major political issue, but Secretary Bennett’s fame as a champion of traditional education signifies how he has emerged as one of the most coherent and articulate spokesmen for the intellectual and moral foundations of the “Reagan Revolution.” His speeches about education invoke a world which many Americans fear is in danger of being lost permanently—a world which respects the wisdom of the ages and incorporates that wisdom into its educational system, which values self-discipline and personal achievement, which is skeptical of panaceas promoted by the government, and which rests upon the moral authority of families, churches, and schools.

The controversies around Patrick Buchanan mainly involve international issues, and here it is relevant to recall that anyone going through Catholic schools prior to the mid-1960s was left with an ingrained conviction that Communism was the greatest organized evil in the world and that the battle against it rightly called forth all the courage and resourcefulness Catholics—and Americans in general—could summon. Serious-minded students understood both the philosophical errors of Marxism and the actual atrocities perpetrated by Communist regimes. Imaginations were fired by stories of Christians martyred by Communists in many lands.

Today Catholic scholars who take an interest in Marxism are likely to be at least somewhat sympathetic to it. The evils of Communism are acknowledged but rarely denounced with the passion aroused by events in countries with anti-communist governments. Students in Catholic schools (as, perhaps, in most American schools) are likely to emerge with the suspicion that the United States is as much to blame as the Soviet Union for world problems. Martyrs under Communism are rarely noticed; admiration is reserved for Christians who have suffered under “reactionary” regimes.

If ideas do have consequences, the gravitation of Catholics towards the Reagan administration is wholly understandable: it is there that they find opportunities for implementing the principles learned in the Catholic schools of thirty years ago. Conversely, the Democratic Party seems to have all but turned its back on those same principles. Meanwhile, the mostly Protestant leaders of the Republican Party seem to find that they must often turn to Catholics for the philosophical, and sometimes even the political leadership needed to effect the Reagan Revolution.

Indeed, issues aside, certain people in the Reagan administration are dismissed as conservative ideologues precisely because they are faithful to their Catholic educations, in their belief that ideas, as expressions of spiritual values, are ultimately what is important in politics.

Catholics of thirty years ago were usually liberals, in the sense of having a commitment of some kind to the welfare state and, concomitantly, to the labor movement. However, they were also imbued with a conception of the public order in which other considerations transcend economics. Had earnest young Catholics of that era been confronted with a political program which would expand the welfare state but at the same time promote abortion and further widen the division between religion and public life, most would have seen clearly where their duty lay.

Secretary Bennett is once again a revealing example. He embarrasses some Catholic educators precisely because he seems to express views of education which they have tried to put behind them. Alumni of Catholic colleges are now told, at least implicitly, that both the style and content of their educations was wrong, and often they are told this by their own former teachers. Hence the secretary’s speeches appear to these same teachers as dangerously atavistic.

Admittedly, unabashed “free market” economics do not easily harmonize with traditional Catholic social teaching, as taught in the Catholic colleges of thirty years ago. However, the gap between that teaching and the actual policies of the Reagan administration is not wide. The administration, whether out of conviction or from mere political necessity, maintains many of the key elements of the existing welfare state, even as it discourages new programs. The legal status of labor unions is not a major issue. Hence there is little in the administration’s economic program which directly contravenes classical Catholic social teaching. It is only by debatable extensions of that teaching that such a conflict can be posited.

Furthermore, Catholics who were taught that the welfare state best harmonizes with Catholic social doctrine were also taught the inherent unacceptability of socialism, which was considered contrary to those teachings in important ways. But as the dividing line between liberals and socialists has gotten thinner’, Catholic social thinkers have tended to forget those familiar strictures, even if many of the alumni of their schools have not.

Many people of all political stripes believe that the so-called “social issues”—those involving direct judgments about fundamental moral issues—do not belong in politics, which has to do with the “real world” of economics and foreign affairs. But, as Jerry Falwell pointed out in explaining his own entry into the political arena, moral traditionalists are given no choice in the matter; courts, legislatures, and public agencies of all kinds constantly lay down doctrines which embody moral relativism in destructive practical ways.

But if moral traditionalists can be sure that the Democratic Party will continue to advance the modernist agenda, is there equivalent assurance that the Republican Party will uphold their values? In the very nature of politics, and especially of American politics, traditionalists cannot be sure, since in the political world sharp ideas are always blunted, partly by design, partly by the demands of reality.

In another way, the answer is an automatic “yes.” For budgetary reasons, as well as from an inherent resistance to new programs, any Republican administration is unlikely to move the national government in directions traditionalists find offensive and, however lamentable some Republican judges may be, the radicalism of any one of them can usually be discounted a certain percentage beyond his closest Democratic counterpart.

Ronald Reagan seemed to embody the hopes of moral traditionalists better than any political figure of the past quarter-century. Given these high hopes, his actual performance was bound to be a disappointment, and on balance his achievements seem to have been partial and erratic; William Bennett, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy have had few soul mates in high office these past eight years.

Traditional Republicans believe that such issues belong in private life and have nothing to do with the hard-headed realities of politics, and to the degree that George Bush is a traditional Republican he probably shares this belief. At a minimum he seems confused by the “social issues,” and unable to understand why so many people are passionate about them.

But one lasting accomplishment of the Reagan years has been that moral traditionalists have made a real home for themselves within the Republican Party. They cannot be driven out; they can only choose to leave. If George Bush turns out to be a reliable ally, so much the better. If not, those who believe in enduring truths can outlast even an unsympathetic president of their own party, and live to fight another day.


  • James Hitchcock

    James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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