Sunday, August 31, 2008

Michael Sean Winters: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics

More from Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats

The problem with (Jack) Kennedy's speech was not that he misconceived the relationship of church and state, but the relationship between religion and culture, including the culture of his own ideas. For him, religion was an accident of birth, like Jackie being a brunette, something odd he did on Sunday mornings, but nothing that would inform his views. -- Michael Sean Winters

Winters points an accusatory finger in an unlikely direction. Jack Kennedy generally gets rave reviews and accolades for his speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, and rightfully so, but Winters points out that it also had a downside and an unintended effect...

How did the Democrats lose the Catholic vote? How did the electoral-cultural alliance epitomized in the New Deal coalition fall apart? A critical part of the answer to those questions is ideological. In the interest of pursuing his own election, Kennedy did more than restrict religion's role in politics, he claimed to eliminate it. Claiming religion was private and, therefore, beyond question, Kennedy succeeded in portraying those who questioned his religion in any way as bigots. Other politicians were similarly disinclined from the sometimes difficult task of working out the social and political implications of their beliefs, and they followed Kennedy's lead. Just so, Democrats became unable to perform the important task of relating their policies and programs to an explicitly moral vision for the nation. Monsignor Ryan had done so in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Catholic bishops did so on nuclear weapons and the economy in the 1980s. But politicians had become too timid to address the important ways religion had, and always will, influence the nation's political life.

Following this "privatization" of religion, the dynamics of the abortion debate, and development of "privacy rights" in the jurisprudence of the courts led Democrats to redefine liberalism. This resulted in a view that had more in common with the liberalism of the universities and the philosophers and their biases against religion than with the traditions of American liberalism. Gone was the pragmatic liberalism of Roosevelt and the New Deal, rooted in providing for the material well-being of the poor, elderly, and unemployed. In its place was a conception of personal autonomy, unmoored from religious or moral qualifications, vindicated not by the voters but by the courts. This change left Democrats increasingly tone-deaf to the concerns of voters whose views on the entirety of their lives, including politics, were shaped by their faith and who were suspicious of those who tried to wall off their faith from the rest of their lives.

The discussion of how religion affects our common national lift, was left to conservatives and Republicans, and they were all too happy to take it up, finding in their efforts a way to propel themselves back into the majority. The GOP became the "God Party." Democrats became the party of irreligion by abandoning their traditional moral and specifically religious arguments against segregation and the Vietnam War, and adopting a legalistic conception of rights and libertarian flirtations of a kind completely antithetical to traditional American liberal concerns. In a nation of churchgoers, Republicans were bound to win.


crystal said...

Jeff, did you see that Kmiec had a response at America magazine to Fr. Kavanaugh's letter to Obama? I haven't read it yet myself, but it's here.

Jeff said...

Thanks Crystal! It's a really good article. You should give it a read.

Liam said...

That is a good article.

Jeff -- I've been far too busy to respond intelligently to your thoughtful and challenging posts. But I have been reading and thinking about them.

Hope all is well with you & yours.

Jeff said...

Thanks Liam. Deep diving into those charters and new first semester classes? We'll catch up when we can.

crystal said...

I think Winters maybe makes a mistake to assume that non-religious = non-moral. Seculat politics still is about ethics and morals. It's a weird idea that only religion will compell people to do good and he seems to forget that not all americans are relgious, and not all democrats are either.

Do you read his posts at America's blog? He writes quite a lot there.

Jeff said...

I’d never heard Winters before I came across this book, but now I’ve noticed many of the articles in America, as you’ve pointed out.
I think the claim that he’s trying to make is that the Democrats have turned away from communal issues and from being shaped and formed by their religious values, like they were in the Civil Rights struggle and in the resistance to the Viet Nam War, towards libertarianism and issues of privacy and personal autonomy. He thinks that in later struggles, the Dems turned towards the personal liberty principle as it might have been understood by someone like John Stuart Mill – “I have personal autonomy. I have the freedom to do whatever I like, as long as I don’t hurt anyone else.” Is that the same thing as morality? I suppose there are some who would debate that is is. Winters notes the irony that in the stuggle over Civil Rights, the segregationists relied on appeals to privacy and the right to be left alone.

Liam said...

The funny thing is that personal autonomy is a huge part of the Republican approach to things, but with them it is a question of guns and taxes and, when extended to the level of businesses and corporations, the right to pollute and mistreat workers.

Jeff said...


That's exactly right, which Winters points out as well.

That's not to say that fighting for privacy and personal autonomy rights is necessarily a bad thing. He's just pointing out that it has a different philosphical origin from most religious tradition.

Brother Charles said...

I'm happy to blame the famous speech for the marginalization of Catholic morality in our political discourse (among Catholics, most seriously), but I'm sure that this public-private distinction in our national discourse with respect to religion has much older and deeper roots in the American mind.

For me there's another mystery to the whole thing. One thing I always knew from my father, who, among various outrageous claims, says that he is the last living true liberal, is that classic liberalism is supposed to be anti-clerical. For whatever reason this didn't happen the same way in the U.S.A. But how it fits into the alleged heirs of classic progressive thinking "losing the Catholics" is something I don't know how to understand, though I'm sure there's something to think about there. Anybody know of anything good I could read on these subjects?

Jeff said...

Brother Charles,

For a similar, but more conservative take than Winters' on matters related to this, you might want to check out David Carlin's The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America. I don't agree with all of it, but it's a good read and I think he makes an interesting case.

From the abstract:

Basing his conclusions on sociological analysis rather than on theology or Church teachings, Carlin shows that in the 1960’s the Church in America was weakened by the triumph of tolerance as an American virtue (which led Catholics to downplay their uniquely Catholic beliefs for the sake of unity) and then was battered by a culture that, seemingly overnight, had become boldly secularist and even libertine.

cowboyangel said...


Looks like you've had some great posts lately. Sorry I haven't been reading - I took a bit of a break.

This is an interesting take on things, but I think there are probably many factors involved in why Democrats have lost Catholic votes at times. And it started BEFORE JFK and his speech. Check out this pdf from sargeant which asks the question back in the 1950s: Are Democrats Losing Catholics?

I would argue that the Democrats began losing a strong Catholic vote back in the post-WWII era, as immigrant groups, which had formed the base of the Catholic vote, achieved more economic success. The struggling Italian working-class family in Brooklyn finally "made it" and moved out to Long Island.

As I said, the Democrats were having trouble with the Catholic vote before JFK came along. 47% voted for Ike in 1952 and a majority did in 1956 (I don't have the stats for 56). Then, naturally, they voted in large numbers for Kennedy (78%), and - I would argue - for his memory in the person of LBJ in 1964 (76%). In 1968, they supported Humphrey but less so (59%) and went for Nixon, like most of the country, in 1972 (55%). But in 1976, 3 years after Roe v. Wade, 54% supported Carter. 50% went for Reagan in 1980, not exactly the kind of seismic shift we always seem to hear about - that's less than Nixon got in 1972. Reagan got 57% in 1984 and Bush barely edged out Dukakis 50-49% in 1988. Clinton got the most in both 1992 and 1996 (42% in a 3-way battle in 1992 and 52%). Gore got the most in 2000 (53%).

Looking at these numbers, I'm not sure the "Democrats Have Lost the Catholics" narrative really holds up. With the exception of the JFK-LBJ outliers, Republicans and Democrats have gone back and forth with Catholic support in the last 60 years, with most winners receiving a little more than half of the vote. Since 1968, in 10 elections, both parties have received a majority of the Catholic vote five times. I don't see a straight line there.

If the Democrats "lost the Catholic vote," they did so a long time ago. And it had nothing to do with abortion and probably little to do with the role of religion in public life. It was simply an economic shift.

Not to say that abortion and the role of religion don't play a role in Catholic support, but perhaps we spend too much time stuck in an outdated and even incorrect narrative about these things.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Thanks for the Shriver link. That was fascinating.

The 1952 vote I can sort of understand. Ike said, "I will go to Korea." I think even my mother probably voted for Ike in '52 over Stevenson. She wanted to make sure my father got back from Korea asap. In '52, Truman probably would have had trouble getting elected dog-catcher in Independence, MO.

The one that really sticks out is 1956. Maybe Stevenson was too much of an intellectual? Ike was the military man, the general who won the war in Europe... Catholics were staunchly anti-Communist, etc...

You bring up some great points about the various ethnic groups. Being from Boston, where the Irish have dominated city politics for so long, and Tammany in New York, and the Chicago machine, it's easy to get caught up in looking at it strictly through an Irish-Catholic lens.

Yes, the Italians were different, now that you mention it. The Italians gravitated towards the Republicans, didn't they? Think of Fiorello La Guardia.... The Irish were often in civil service jobs... Fire Department, Police, etc... The Italians came over and started their own small businesses. Maybe that accounted for the difference.

cowboyangel said...

Just to clarify, I only mentioned the Italians in NY as one example. I think all of the immigrant groups went through the same economic change. There's a stat in that Shriver document that details how much ground was lost within some of the major Catholic ethnic groups in the 1952 election. German Catholics, previously 82% Democratic, went 55% for Ike. Poles went from 70% Dem to 50% for Ike, and Irish went from 65% Dem to 53% for Ike.

In NY, the Irish went through the same change as the Italians, moving from the city out to Long Island. The Italians and Irish are the two biggest ethnic groups out here.

Massachusetts’ 10th district is the most heavily Irish in the nation (33.2 percent). Long Island's 1st District is 5th in the nation (26.7 percent).

Anonymous said...