Kerry and Catholicism
By Kimberly Ang, Brown University

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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