The conservative Catholic dilemma isn’t just a challenge for Catholics
If the main religious storyline of the 2016 election was the vast evangelical support for a religiously illiterate candidate, the profound fracture among American Catholics might be the biggest story of 2020. According to Edison Research, Joe Biden, only the third presidential nominee of his faith since 1960, won fifty-two percent of the self-identified Catholic vote last November. This contrasts sharply with the groundswell of support from Catholics (roughly eighty percent) that enabled John F. Kennedy to win the White House.
Beneath the liberal-conservative divide that plagues the Catholic community, however, lies something more fundamental. For two hundred years, Catholics have had to reconcile the guiding principles of a pluralistic, democratic country with the teachings of a church that often denounced the same principles, a challenge that was reshaped but not resolved with the watershed election of 1960.
This tension lies at the heart of D. G. Hart’s American Catholic, published several weeks before Biden’s victory. Hart scrutinizes something casual observers—millions of Catholics included—often take for granted: the compatibility of Catholic religious ideals and American national commitments. When it has fostered political engagement (occasional compromises included), this sense of compatibility has been known as the “Americanist” position. Hart approaches both seriously and critically the claims of the anti-Catholic polemicist Paul Blanshard who in the 1940s alleged that this Americanist position was a threat to democracy, due to the authoritative hold the Church yet had on the loyalties of its American members.
However tempting it may be to dismiss Blanshard as the bigoted product of a bygone era, the tension between faith and politics that he identified is still with us.
Blanshard’s essential error was in establishing Americanism and Catholicism as distinct and opposite poles—a trap into which scholars and pundits alike have since fallen. Such a duality establishes the default, normative identity of the United States as Protestant. On such terms, the political Americanization of Catholics becomes, to an extent, their Protestantization, particularly if Catholics must not only accept democratic pluralism, as immigrants readily did, but also trade papal teaching for the norms of the dominant religious group: Protestants. Contra Blanshard, Americanism in our day must instead be seen as a commitment to the possibility of aligning specific Catholic values with those of the larger national community through politics—the distinction is slight but important if we are to make sense of the inner debates of U.S. Catholicism.
The compatibilist position has suffused U.S. Catholic life since the 1950s. It earned a typical nod earlier this year in the statement issued by Archbishop José H. Gomez, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), on the occasion of Biden’s inauguration. According to Gomez, God’s plan for creation entails certain truths about human “dignity, rights and responsibilities,” truths that “are reflected in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.” While drawing from a deep well of Catholic thought, Gomez expressed the bishops’ continued willingness to engage with policymakers whose priorities may be very different.
This position is not necessarily self-evident. From the late nineteenth century, successive popes viewed Americanism and its accommodation of religious pluralism and democracy as a heresy. Nor was the issue solely theological. Americanism in this era did sound an awful lot like Protestantism, as opposed to a civil-religious, nondenominational middle ground. Protestants led moral reform campaigns (Sabbatarianism, temperance) that affected other religious groups, whatever their beliefs, and could regulate the incorporation of Catholic institutions and ban funding for parochial schools. Protestant Bibles predominated in public schools. Established (Protestant) churches survived in the United States into the 1820s; New Hampshire’s constitution prevented Catholics from serving in the state house as late as 1877. Instances of anti-Catholic violence conveyed the perils of chaotic majoritarian rule. Given this history, Roman condemnations of this Americanism shouldn’t be surprising.
The rapprochement that took place between Protestants and Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century owed to political factors and changes within the Church. This is a familiar story that runs through ethnic acculturation, vigorous postwar anti-Communism, and the symbolic contributions of John F. Kennedy and John XXIII. Although we cannot ignore lingering Protestant prejudice toward Catholics, most Catholics agreed with their fellow citizens on the guiding values of American life; they felt no great struggle between religious and national commitments. Famously, in 1965 Cardinal Francis Spellman exclaimed, “right or wrong, my country,” a sign that church and country had domesticated one another.
Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray—who offered a compelling rebuttal to Blanshard—became an agent of this transformation. On the basis of natural law principles, Murray insisted on the compatibility of philosophical liberalism and Catholic dogma. No longer would we ask whether a conscientious Catholic can live in an open, democratic society.
After Murray’s death in 1967 came the cultural deluge that swallowed the postwar liberal consensus. The rise of an unpalatable political liberalism raised new questions for Catholic traditionalists whose conservatism no longer seemed so mainstream. While struggling with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many doubted whether their religious values could still find a political voice.
In American Catholic, Hart identifies William F. Buckley, Jr. and his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, as symbols of this crossroads. Buckley, the founder of National Review, discounted the papal encyclicals that both evinced softness on Communism and elevated social justice. He believed that the United States could yet be an authentically conservative nation. He experienced little tension between the roots of his faith—as distinct from the ambiguities opened by Vatican II—and his political commitments. By contrast, for Bozell, faith was a prior, more elementary commitment that could lead Catholics to reject the American experiment, which too often made concessions on basic moral issues.
Recent echoes of the second position appear in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, in which religious conservatives figure as a beleaguered minority that will save itself through separation. Committed Catholics might not, admittedly, be so quick to ignore the theological differences that Dreher leaves in the shadow of broader conservative values.
In official circles, Americanism remains the norm. Archbishop Gomez’s statement on behalf of the USCCB—which some observers interpreted as a conservative rebuke of President Biden—evinces a desire to continue to speak to power. On the other hand, in a fascinating twist, traditionalist Catholic intellectuals have joined certain liberal coreligionists and rejected Americanism and its compromises. Somewhere in the balance are church-going Catholics who, alienated by Biden’s liberal outlook, may follow Bozell’s path and disengage politically. These individuals have a clear view of the “correct” Catholic position, but expressing it in the realm of practical politics is as difficult as ever.
This is to be expected—and it brings us to the other large piece missing from Blanshard’s analysis. Neither church nor state can demand (or even expect) total, unquestioning allegiance. Tension between civic and religious commitments is healthy, normal, and common to all people of faith.
We cannot argue that Americanism is a challenge unique to the Catholic Church. By falling back on the relationship to Rome and the Church’s “authoritarianism,” such a case would perpetuate Blanshardian stereotypes. The unique inner dynamics of the U.S. Church—which are effectively laid out in Hart’s American Catholic—should not blind us to struggles that are common to all people of faith in pluralistic nations.
The challenge of Americanism is widely shared. Donald Trump’s time in presidential politics forced difficult questions about exceptionalism, religious freedom, and Christian nationalism on mainline and evangelical Protestants. Biden’s presidency has already put difficult questions to conservative Catholics. In negotiating a centuries-old tension, they will be far from alone.
Patrick Lacroix, Ph.D., is the author of John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith.