How Catholics Commit Political Suicide

Anti-Catholicism has always been a problem in America, although today it is nothing like what existed in an earlier era. Catholics are part of the nation’s economic, political, and cultural establishment, no longer the lesser citizens of a society that was generically Protestant and fairly proud of that fact. But every so often, events conspire to revive the issue of whether all that much has changed and whether a prejudice against the Church lies beneath the surface of national life.

In recent months, several events have raised again the question of whether there is room for Catholics in American politics. During the heat of the Republican primaries, Gov. George W. Bush’s appearance at Bob Jones University in South Carolina erupted into a media flap over the issue of whether the Republican candidate is an anti-Catholic bigot. Similarly, there was the saga of the search for a new chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives, in which the candidate apparently favored by the search committee—a Catholic priest—lost out to a Protestant minister favored by influential members of the House leadership. (In the end, the minister withdrew from consideration and a different priest was appointed.)

Then there is the ongoing campaign by several interest groups, mostly American ones (and one backed by Vice President Al Gore), united under the badly punning label “See Change,” which is trying to have the United Nations (UN) downgrade the status of the Vatican from that of permanent observer (which puts the Holy See on a par with UN member states). Groups such as Planned Parenthood and the soi-disant Catholics for a Free Choice want the Vatican to be declared a nongovernmental organization. In other words, they want the Holy See put on the same level as themselves.

In light of all these events, is there a place for us in our nation’s politics?

Three Realities of Politics

I believe there is a place for Catholics, but it is not obvious from the reports about Bob Jones or the House chaplain. As I have surveyed the American political landscape, it has become clear that far too many Catholics have forgotten three fundamental realities of politics that we must understand and accept if we are to claim our place in the public square. These are the Leonine Reality Axiom, the Heretic-Infidel Distraction, and the McLaughlin Principle.

The Leonine Reality Axiom. The first reality of politics is that it occurs in this world. And this world is a flawed and messy place. We should never forget that our ultimate end is beyond this world, but our politics and government take place here. We have to realize that we can achieve only so much by politics.

The philosopher Eric Voegelin held that one of the central political principles of what he called the Mediterranean Tradition is the distinction between this world and the next. Politics is about what goes on in this world, and it cannot deliver for us the salvation that lies only in the world to come. This idea was stated succinctly in Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes, 1891) by Pope Leo XIII, in a statement that we might characterize as the Leonine Reality Axiom: “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is—and at the same time to seek elsewhere for the solace to its troubles.”

Some Catholic political activists in America bemoan the religious neutralism of the American Republic. They blame nearly all of our troubles, from abortion to juvenile delinquency, on this fact. Because the Constitution does not mention God, they tell us, the United States is doomed to perdition. They commit themselves to pursuing the dream of a pure Christian politics: they won’t support any candidate who does not reflect their views completely; they regard any compromise as a sellout; and they consider any partial or incremental victory to be a capitulation. They want a confessional state, or something close to it, and suggest that the nation is doomed unless America officially cleaves to the Church.

While politics touches much of our lives—birth, death, family, prosperity, education, and health—it does not reach to the core of life. As St. Augustine reminds us, our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. One of the chief lessons of the 20th century was that even the total state could not fulfill the deepest longings of the human heart. In the same way, even an aggressive political agenda and an unlikely series of political victories will not bring about some kind of Catholic utopia in America. We Catholics must remember that we can achieve all that we want only through interior conversion and the ultimate triumph that is beyond history.

The official neutrality toward religion by the state in America is unlikely to change (except for the worse). The nation’s political culture, as well as its charter, does not commit the republic to the establishment of religion. But that does not mean that the United States is or must be hostile to our faith. We must acknowledge that we are citizens of a republic that makes it possible for Catholics to live and work, raise their families, and practice their faith.

The Heretic-Infidel Distraction. Politics, especially in a democracy, is about building and maintaining winning coalitions. In a system of majority rule, there is little reward for going it alone. Coalition politics thus requires that one group find allies and work with them to achieve success. Cultivating allies not only involves compromise: it also means that one must be able to discern one’s real allies and true adversaries.

There is a problem, however, in that human nature places an obstacle in the path of coalition-building among people who are moved by principle. This problem is the tendency that I call the Heretic-Infidel Distraction. It is the tendency of principled political actors to focus their ire and fire on those who share most—but not all—of their principles (the “heretic”) and largely to overlook the challenge posed by those who disagree with these actors on fundamentals (the “infidel”).

This tendency manifests itself in a variety of ways. I first encountered it at a bookstore near the campus of the University of Texas. Near the entrance to this shop was a spot for various local groups to leave literature for free distribution. A number of local radical groups regularly left copies of their newspapers and broadsides. But what I noticed was that the various shades of Marxist groups filled the pages of their papers with attacks on the sins and errors of their fellow-travelers in other Marxist organizations, meanwhile spending little time attacking the capitalists whom one would assume were the real enemies of all these radicals.

This distraction has occurred elsewhere. Consider the internecine wars of political parties: the Republicans who hated Rockefeller more than LBJ or the Democrats who thought Humphrey worse than Nixon. Consider the behavior of some pro-life activists, who have expended more effort attacking Bush (who shares most of their goals) than the aggressively anti-life Gore. Consider the war of words between Catholic cultural radicals and the neoconservatives or among conservative intellectuals between traditionalist conservatives and neoconservatives. In each case, the heretic has drawn more fire than the infidel who is the real enemy.

This idea is not to suggest that heresy—real heresy, such as Arianism or Catharism—is unimportant or unthreatening to the faith. Rather, I use “heretic” and “infidel” figuratively. But not every disagreement within a larger consensus constitutes heresy, neither is it necessarily a bigger threat than the unbeliever who accepts few or none of the believer’s principles.

Media reports have highlighted a supposed struggle between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, while the reality of recent interreligious political events has been about cooperation more than conflict. Catholics have worked together with Protestants and Jews in the area of civil rights and especially with evangelicals in the pro-life movement.

The issue here is a tendency in human nature that interferes with effective political action. In the matter of Catholics in American politics, we must penetrate the misperceptions created by the Heretic-Infidel Distraction and see who are our true allies and adversaries. This task involves understanding a third political reality.

The McLaughlin Principle. He is not the first person to practice it, but television commentator John McLaughlin is the most visible example extant of an ancient political principle. It is the reality that the one (person or group) who sets the agenda for discussion, debate, or deliberation goes a long way toward influencing the outcome. Call it the McLaughlin Principle: when he shouts “Issue 1!” or tells his guests to rate a presidential speech on a one-to-ten scale, McLaughlin is moving his fellow pundits toward his own presentation of the issues. He never lets the group discuss anything but the issues he raises.

Too often, Catholics and other people of faith allow their common adversaries to set the terms of debate. For we and other believers are really at odds with secularists in our culture. The true threats facing Catholics today are not from Know-Nothings such as fundamentalists—their dislike for us stems more from ignorance and a lack of acquaintance than hatred—it comes from those who want to drive anything related to religion from the public square. There are anti-Catholic bigots abroad in this country, but in my experience, Catholics today have far more to fear from the secularists than from believers in other faiths.

Allies and Adversaries

The culture wars that have marked American society in recent years are not like the 17th-century wars of religion. Indeed, today’s culture wars are frequently wars about religion and whether it has any legitimate role in modern life. On one side are those who insist that religion has a central place in our lives, that there is something larger than power and material gain at stake in civilization, and that religious faith and practice can and must be accommodated in the political sphere. This is not an issue that separates Catholics from Protestants, Jews, Muslims, or any other believers.

On the opposing side are those who treat religion as a purely private matter, that is, a matter not only out of place in politics but downright dangerous. For these partisans, Catholicism is an especially serious threat, because it is an institution with a central leadership, a patriarchal and hierarchical structure, and an elaborate moral and social theology. This view pervades much of what Christopher Lasch called America’s talking class: the elite media, professional political advocates, and academia.

To demonstrate this point, let me relate a bit of my experience from one frontline of the culture wars: the public university. In 1999, my university’s senate took up the question of whether to establish a policy of guaranteeing students an excused absence from class for religious holy days. Lines were soon drawn. Favoring the policy was a united front of practicing Catholics, evangelical Christians, observant Jews, and devout Muslims. They were arrayed against those secularists who said we could not “privilege religion” (a direct quote from a faculty meeting). In the end, the policy was adopted but with many in the faculty shaking their heads.

In another incident, a group of evangelical faculty from around the institution placed an ad in the student newspaper. All it said was that students of faith, or searching for faith, could approach the persons named in the ad for conversation, support, and encouragement during the college years. This simple act was immediately denounced as “exclusivist” and “intolerant” by several loud voices on campus, although none of them bothered to explain why or how such an action could be so.

There was also a battle over the showing of the movie Priest. Supporting the movie were a number of prominent university officials who conduct programs to teach tolerance of “difference” and who identify the Church as one of their principal enemies. On the other side were believers even beyond the Catholic Church, who understood that the movie was an attack on religion itself. The student affairs division of the university defended the movie, and quite unapologetically. The student government senate, at the behest of one Catholic member and a non-Catholic ally, voted to condemn the showing.

Students themselves are not all secularists, but I can see the influence of this view even among Catholics in my classes. Many college students have been raised on a diet of radical personal autonomy, “what’s right for me,” and the idea that everything is relative. Of course, they are also believers in natural law, although they often do not realize it. They oppose torture, government corruption, injustice, and other values, but their common sense has been dulled by the repetition of misleading messages.

In our larger culture, young people see a mixed message. They hear some voices supporting real values, but more consistently, they hear from those who take the secular line. The secularists consider religion, at best, a hobby or, at worst, a “crutch” for the weak-minded, as Minnesota’s Governor Jesse Ventura put it. Religion may be okay for someone in private, provided that it is not part of public conversation.

In 1998, an article in National Journal expressed concern that the Washington pundits who seemed most likely to react harshly to President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky were Catholics (including ABC’s Cokie Roberts and Tim Russert of NBC). What seemed to bother the reporter was that these pundits were using standards they acquired from religion to judge public figures. The magazine attributed the reaction of these commentators to the Church’s almost quaint notion of objective standards of right and wrong, a view that would be quaint were such ideas not regarded as so threatening to the secularists.

Most of our elite media do believe in standards, but they believe in political standards. Their frame of reference is that of domestic politics, so they shoehorn the world into categories drawn from party conventions, cloakroom bargaining, and public relations. These journalists believe in polls, images, and winners and losers defined by the playing out of the political process. That is why most journalists focused not on the morality or legality of President Clinton’s behavior in and around the Lewinsky affair but on his poll numbers and whether he could survive politically. That is why most reports of issues in the Catholic Church resemble the coverage given to the internal struggles of the Democratic or Republican parties. A pronouncement from Rome on ordaining women is not repeating an authoritative teaching: it is a statement of “papal policy” subject to the give-and-take of factional politics within the political organization that journalists interpret the Church to be.

The Real Culture Wars

Here is where the front is in America’s culture wars: over the issue of religion in American life. How we frame the issue will go a long way toward influencing how we resolve it. Consider how the question is often phrased in contemporary debate: Does religion have a legitimate role to play in the public square? To put the question in this form is to put the burden of proof on those who stand with history and our nation’s founders in protecting faith. Instead, Catholics and their true allies—believers in other faiths—ought to insist that the question be how to accommodate and support religion and morality within the constraints of the constitutional order.

The assault on religion is direct and often overt, but it can also be very subtle. A new tactic that the opponents of faith now use is to go beyond calling religious accommodation an “establishment” of religion. Now, they are claiming that any argument that can be linked to faith, or any public action that might be beneficial to people of faith, is unacceptable. When a school district in the Cincinnati suburbs included in its schedule a holiday that coincided with Passover (without naming the religious occasion), it was attacked. The attack did not come from Christians but from those freethinkers who objected to any accommodation of people’s religious practices.

Not all battles in the culture wars are so obviously about religion. But too many contemporary issues have been framed in a way that puts the side of public morality on the defensive: the “right to die,” personal drug use, abortion, same-sex marriage and adoption, fetal tissue research, pornography, and so on. Consider how the Supreme Court has told the nation that liberty includes the right to construct one’s own definition of reality. If we debate assisted suicide under such terms, we can never win.

Catholics must not be distracted by a media-driven flap over differences between themselves and people of other faiths. Rather, we must make common cause with other believers against the secularists. Yes, there still will be differences between us and those of other faiths, but in the realm of politics, most of these differences are irrelevant. It has been my experience that most believers in other faiths understand, or can understand, the nation’s culture wars in this way.

Making common cause with other believers is the domestic political component of the “ecumenical jihad” that Peter Kreeft advocates. We will be more likely to be successful if we frame the issues of the political agenda in our terms, not those of our adversaries. In recent years, the secularists have dominated the debate by misusing words such as “freedom” and “tolerance.” It is time to make a change: We must begin to talk about freedom and tolerance, responsibility and community, virtue and life, and other principles in terms that make sense to us. We should talk about the continually demonstrated need for a commitment to the correct values in our politics: human dignity, the traditional family supported by traditional marriage, faith and freedom, ordered liberty, and other foundations of civilized society.

We can learn a few things about political strategy from our allies in faith. Many Catholic activists have expended too much time in the battle over the White House. It does make a difference who is president, but many of the issues that matter to us are more directly influenced at the state and local level. Evangelicals realized this fact several years ago, and today Christian Coalition members control Republican Party organizations in several states. Catholics need to remember the importance of school boards, state legislatures, and city councils in setting policies on family law, education, and our daily living. We can work at these levels to shape the debate and the future.

There is a place for Catholics in American politics, but it is at the side our true allies. And it is right in the middle of the public square.


  • Ryan Barilleaux

    Ryan Barilleaux is Professor of Political Science at Miami University (Ohio). He writes on the American presidency and Catholic social thought. He was editor-in-chief of Catholic Social Science Review and the author or editor of ten books on the presidency and American politics.

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