Today, fifty three years ago, just five miles away from where I currently sit, the "Catholic vote" died as a real and tangible thing in American politics. Two weeks after Manhattan real estate magnate Donald Trump shocked the world and rode a rare populist wave to the top it is worth reconsidering what Catholics have lost in American politics.
Barack Obama won the Catholic vote in 2008 after Bush won it in 2004 and Bill Clinton took it in the '90s. Reagan won it in the '80s and Kennedy won it against Nixon, whose boss won it in 1956. Notice something? Catholics typically vote for the winner. An eager man might think the Catholic vote swayed the election, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth, at least nothing since that fateful day in 1963. Catholics did not drive the election, they merely voted the same way as everyone else.
The Catholic vote existed because of immigration from traditionally Catholic countries to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Irish, Polish, Italians, and eastern Europeans. While immigration was legal it was not always welcomed. America's original sin, slavery, has caused some historical amnesia with regard to the history of the Klu Klux Klan, which existed as numerously and in some periods more numerously in Pennsylvania and New York than in the Carolinas and Tennessee. The Klan hated Catholics and Jews just as much as it hated blacks, albeit the KKK lacked the political protection in the north that it had in the south. Immigrants from Catholic lands retained their own sequestered communities in cities and dominated the indigenous churches there (when was there last an Archbishop in New York without an Irish name?). Anglo-Americans wanted little socially to do with Catholics and Catholics wanted little socially to do with each other; communities in my Connecticut hometown built churches for Irish, Polish, and Italian neighborhoods within a mile of each other. Irish were particularly disdained, the "white niggers" of the northern United States.
The Catholic ethnic ghettos retained some semblance of cultural cohesion, however embarrassment and desire for elusive assimilation compelled most second generation Catholics to refuse to learn their parents' and grandparents' native tongues as a home language. When the Second World War arrived the disliked Catholics served side-by-side with other white Americans while the blacks had their own legions. While they did not exactly warm up to the Miraculous Medal, "WASP" American soldiers lived with Catholics, fought with them, died with them, and learned that they were not a peculiar clique after all. A last gasp of ethnocentric Catholic identity propelled Kennedy to the Presidency in 1960 in an election not unlike this past one, where the popular vote was closer than the electoral college would conventionally suggest. The Irish and Cardinal Cushing, in a final fit before demographic death, voted for Kennedy at a 70% rate. No candidate since has enjoyed such a Catholic following.
While the ethnic bonds of Catholicism evanesced after World War II, the Catholic vote did not. Rapid rates of conversion and the ability of the faith to survive outside the "old world" kept Catholics a robust political demographic, although Cardinals Spellman and McIntyre's anti-Communism would have had everyone pull the lever for Republicans against Cardinal Cushing and the rest of the "Democratic party at prayer" in Boston. 75% of Catholics attended weekly Mass, 90% monthly; a similar number held to conventional teachings such as the Church's primacy in moral and ethic issues. At the same time, the differences between the Republican and Democratic parties could be reduced to what one thought of the New Deal and of the Soviet Union. Gay marriage, killing babies, and third wave feminism were not on the ballot in those days (in fact they have never been on the ballot, they are always adjudicated by the Supreme Court). Kennedy's assassination and the enormous drop off in Mass attendance after the liturgical changes of the 1960s pulverized whatever burgeoning Catholic vote there was.
Like Jews, but unlike Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, people continue to identify as Catholics after losing their faith and ceasing to practice its tenets for years. What made the Catholic vote an actual force in politics was that it reflected a tangible religious practice that made for a coherent voting block to be pursued by those who could appeal to its interests. With a quarter of Catholics attending Mass even monthly and 98% of Catholic women having used birth control at one point or another in their lives one cannot say the same rules apply now as did in 1963.
The largest demographic in modern American politics is the irreligious, although not necessarily the anti-religious. Trump revived the Evangelical vote during the primaries, but cut into other demographics in the general election. Hispanics, who one would presume to be Catholic, by in large voted for the most pro-abortion candidate in American history because the press perceive Trump's immigration stance to reflect an underlying bigotry against immigrants from south of the Texas-Mexico border. And yet Trump won the "Catholic vote." We should be proud. Jack would be.