In the presidential election of 1960, eighty percent of Catholics
voted for fellow Catholic, John F. Kennedy, over his Protestant
rival, Richard Nixon. The concerns, in 1960, were about Senator
Kennedy being too Catholic, about Rome having too much influence
at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. More than forty years later, Senator
John F. Kerry, another Catholic presidential candidate, finds
himself in almost the exact opposite predicament. A mid-September
Pew Institute poll has 42% of Catholics in support of Kerry
and 49% in support of his opponent, George W. Bush. No one in
the public is concerned about Senator Kerry being too Catholic,
but many are truly concerned that he is not Catholic enough.
What has caused this change in the Catholic vote? The answer
lies in a combination of factors, among them the changing socioeconomic
status of Catholics in the United States, the changing demographics
of U.S. Catholics, and the Church’s re-prioritizing of
its political platform. These factors have led Catholics from
being a bulwark of the Democratic Party to a group of voters
highly sought by both parties.
In 1960, the Catholic population in the United States remained
largely marginalized in society. Many Catholics still considered
themselves the victims of job and ethnic discrimination and,
eschewed by the mainstream of U.S. culture, these Catholics
found support in each other, leading to the formation of a strong
Catholic identity. When they saw Senator Kennedy on the campaign
trail, they saw him as “one of their own,” especially
since, at that time, no Catholic had been elected President.
Electing Kennedy, in essence, placed him on a pedestal and,
by the extension of their common Catholic identity, raised all
Catholics onto that same pedestal.
But now Catholics are the mainstream, or at least part of it.
They have reached economic parity with Protestants and, through
figures such as President John F. Kennedy, have arguably reached
social parity. The job discrimination and ethnic discrimination
experienced by their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers
is something far removed from most Catholics today. Catholics
for a Free Choice conducted a survey that found that, on a range
of social issues, “Catholic voters are more likely to
stand with other Americans than with the U.S. Catholic bishops
and the Vatican.” They see themselves more as Americans
than as Catholics—meaning Senator Kerry cannot use appeals
to some unique Catholic commonality in his attempts to win the
Catholic vote. Catholic voters do not see Senator Kerry as “one
of their own.”
In addition to the changing socioeconomic status of U.S. Catholics,
there is a sizeable change in the demographic makeup of U.S.
Catholics. In 1960, the Catholic population was far more homogenous
than as it currently exists. The Catholic population consisted
almost entirely of immigrants of European descent, whether the
country of origin was Ireland, Poland, or France, for example.
In 2004, however, Hispanics constitute the fastest-growing portion
of the Catholic Church. The lack of a Catholic identity is influenced
by not only the growing socioeconomic equality of Catholics,
but also by the ethnic division amongst themselves.
The elites of the Catholic Church, too, have undergone changes
in the past forty years, particularly, in regards to their political
platform. In truth, the Catholic leadership is progressive on
many issues, such as nuclear proliferation, war, and aid to
the needy. In the past, these were the issues that the Catholic
leadership highlighted, giving the Catholic Church and the Catholic
population a seemingly more progressive ideology. As progressive
as the leadership is on these issues, it is almost as equally
conservative on other issues, namely abortion and same-sex marriage.
Because the leadership has re-prioritized these issues into
their main causes, the Catholic Church and the Catholic population
seem to bear a more conservative ideology. JFK, for example,
never had to state his positions on same-sex marriage or abortion
because they were not on the political agenda. He did not have
to address his conflict between his liberal positions and the
conservative ones of his faith, because his faith had not yet
brought those conflicts to the fore.
While Senator Kerry may share the same faith and the same
initials as Senator Kennedy, he does not share the socio-cultural
religious context in which Senator Kennedy lived. Catholic America
in 1960 is not Catholic America in 2004. While President Bush
lost the Catholic vote narrowly in 2000 (53% to 46%) and seems
poised to contend vigorously for it in 2004, it is important
to note that with the meteoric rise in Hispanic Catholics, largely
Democratic voters, Senator Kerry does stand a solid chance of
winning the Catholic vote come November. That is, if there is
such a thing as a “Catholic vote,” after all.
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