How the GOP got “Catholicized”

An interesting perspective, from a writer from across the pond:

There was a time when the Republican Party was strictly for White Anglo Saxon Protestants. It was an alliance between Country Club Episcopalians and twice born followers of the Old Time Gospel, all firmly opposed to mass Catholic immigration from Europe. The nativism of the GOP drove Catholics into the welcoming arms of Al Smith, Jack Kennedy, Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Party.

But this year’s GOP front-runners are a Mormon and two Catholics — Rick Santorum (a cradle of Italian descent) and Newt Gingrich (a convert). Roughly one-quarter of Republican primary voters are Catholic. Notable Catholic GOP leaders include John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Christine O’Donnell, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. Six out of nine justices of the Supreme Court are Catholics, and five of them are Republicans.

The GOP is undergoing a quiet process of Catholicization. It’s one of the reasons why this year’s race has focused so much on social issues — and sex.

Republican outreach to Catholics began in the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon tried to entice blue-collar “white ethnics” to the GOP by taking a tough stand on abortion. Nixon told members of his staff he was tempted to convert to Catholicism himself, but was worried it would be seen as cheap politics: “They would say there goes Tricky Dick Nixon trying to win the Catholic vote. …

Nixon genuinely admired the Catholic intellectual tradition and its ability to provide reasonable arguments to defend conservative values at a time when they were undergoing widespread reappraisal. That certainly made the Church an invaluable partner during the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s.

When the Moral Majority was established in 1979 to oppose things like abortion and homosexual rights, its evangelical founders did their best to include Catholics. Despite the organization’s reputation for being the political voice box of televangelists and peddlers of the apocalypse, by the mid ’80s it drew a third of its funding from Catholic donors. Leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson consciously used the Moral Majority (and, later, the Christian Coalition) as an exercise in ecumenical coalition building.

Falwell and Robertson were fans of Pope John Paul II and his resilient anti-communism. But they also recognized, like Nixon, that the Catholic Church had a vast intellectual heritage that could be drawn upon when fighting the liberals. For example, when debating abortion, evangelicals had hitherto tended to rely on Scripture to make their case. Catholics, on the other hand, had been integrating the concept of “human rights” into their theology since the 1890s.

Under Catholic influence, the pro-life movement evolved from a zealous, theology-heavy rationale to one more couched in the language of human dignity and personhood.

Read more.


  1. As someone who literally “grew up” as a Catholic Republican, I can vouch that the writer got most of the history right (with a few minor quibbles). He cites GOP outreach to Catholics as beginning in the 1970s, but I think the seeds were sown far earlier than that. I would point to the appeal that anti-Communism (and a young California Congressman named Richard Nixon) and folks like Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, Jr. had for socially-conservative Catholics in the late 1940s and 1950s. In the early 1960s, you had the Supreme Court decision to strike down prayer in schools followed by the “cultural meltdown” that began at Haight-Ashbury (in San Francisco) and culminated in Chicago (in the summer of 1968) and at Woodstock (in 1969).

    But no amount of “GOP outreach” could have matched in impact the decision by the Democratic Party to abandon blue-collar and middle-class Catholics. And the turning point was 1972 and the Democratic Party nomination of George McGovern. Four months earlier, in April of that year, Democratic Senator Thomas Eagleton said of McGovern, “The people don’t know McGovern is for ‘amnesty, abortion and acid.’ Once middle America — Catholic middle America, in particular — finds this out, he’s dead.”

  2. ron chandonia says:

    I was struck by this part of the analysis:

    We might speculate that what is emerging is an alliance between ultra-conservative Catholics and tea party evangelicals. Its politics might be antediluvian, but it’s an ecumenical breakthrough and a cultural revolution at the grass-roots level.

    The term “antediluvian” is a curious but particularly apt one. More and more, I think the real “flood” that led to the political divide in this country was the Sexual Revolution. Nothing else seems to inspire as much passion and commitment on both sides of the divide than issues related to sexual behavior, including but not limited to abortion and gay marriage. From the perspective of the Magisterium, the so-called “tea party evangelicals” are right on these issues, even if they disagree with most of the rest of Catholic social teaching.

  3. Henry Karslon says:

    Of course in the 70s, the GOP were supporting the pro-choice, population control agenda, with Nixon taking the lead…

  4. The bishops seem soo happy to have these prominent Catholic republicans, no matter how many countries they wish to invade, no matter how many wars they advocate for, no matter how many times they’ve been married, no matter how they often opposed raises in the minimum wage, or oppose extending health care benefits to tens and tens of millions of Americans, no matter how adamantly they cling to their guns , and no matter how they love the death penalty. Yep, good to have Catholic republicans !

  5. deacon john m. bresnahan says:

    It was President Reagan, I believe, who once said that he didn’t really leave the Democratic Party–It left him.
    I strongly feel the same way as one who once worked in George McGovern’s presidential campaign and helped make our state of Ma. to become the only state where people could, after Watergate, put bumper stickers on our cars reading: “Don’t blame me–I’m from Mass.”
    At the time I was a member of the Dem City Committee, my father was on it for 50 years , and my grandmother had been the Democratic Party State Comitteewoman as well as a high level appointee of FDR (She ran the CCC in Ma.)
    Then in the 1970′s the Democratic Party started moving ever leftward –and seeming to delight in kicking in the head all the “old-line” ethnic Catholic stalwarts of the party. What they did to pro-life Gov. Casey of Penn was inexcusable and most of my family began turning independent or Republican. (All my children and grandchildren are Republican-though I am still independent –or what is here now called “unenrolled.”)
    It is one thing for a party to lean a certain way as long as it respects the views of and respects the people and party members who are not leaning the same way. Every member of my family now believes the Democratic party has become the vehemently anti-Catholic, anti-Christian Party-even ganging up to attack the First Amendment and the consciences of religious believers.
    How a Catholic can even consider supporting a party most of whose politicians support the barbaric extermination of children as they are born is beyond us.

  6. Yes of course we also have the fervent Catholic Democrats like the Kennedys, Pelosi, Sebelius, Leahy etc etc. They are such role models for the Church. Gimme a break Drake.

  7. You have it exactly right, Drake. As does RomCath. Whenever we start saying one party is “more” Catholic, we’re wrong. We divide each other. Each party hits it right on the head at times. Each party is totally out in left field at times. Anyone who tries to say otherwise is merely a political hack of one party or the other. We’re taking our own political beliefs and prejudices and fitting our faith around it.

  8. Mark Greta says:

    Henry, you keep wanting to push this but show no proof of any real substance. The pro life movement did not really start moving forward until after Roe which was 1973. Nixon resigned in 1974. Before 73, the pro life movement was largely driven in various states with legal abortion.

    I think Nixon was in support of population control policies such as birth control in poor countries. But Nixon focus was on foreign policy and his interest in anything domestic was usually in keeping the country from going back to the riot days of the Democratic leadership years under LBJ.

  9. Mark Greta says:

    Ron, I think you are correct but would add the other thing uniting these groups are the moves by the left against religious liberty and forming a secular godless state relgion. Any time I have met with Evangelical Leaders they often mention the courts unconstitutional actions over the last 60-70 years and the same is true of conservative Catholics and those in the tea party, many of whom are not particularly tied to either evangelical or Catholic, but more on the attacks on the Constitution and lose of freedom to big government solutions. All three of these come together against the Democratic Party which supports the godless secular state, loss of religions liberty, big government failed solutions and high unfair taxes paid by about half the people, and ever increasing debt. These are added to the concerns over the attack on all moral values such as abortion, special rights for gays, and the growth of perversion being shipped into our homes. Since the list is so broad on the attacks of the left on America, it seems to be adding ever increasing groups of angry citizens as witnessed in 2010 and I suspect will be repeated in 2012 against the party of death.

  10. Mark Greta says:

    Drake, name the wars since our founding started under Democrats?
    Name the wars started under Republicans that the Democrats voted to block and voted to not support funding?

    Democrats to anyone with even a passing concept of history knows that this is more a democratic issue than republican by a large margin.

    How many times they have been married? If this is in regard to Newt, the Catholic Church does not have an issue with his current marriage because the others were annuled so did not exist in Catholic teaching. But not sure what that has to do with the major problems of the country.

    Raising the minimum wage has very mixed results as we are starting to see in high teen unemployement. Which is the group most impacted. Those trying to make a living on minimum wage and raise a family are hopelessly in trouble. Now if we can just have Republican concepts to fight poverty applied for the next 60 years as we have tried with the failed democrats war on poverty, the poor actually will be helped out of slavery to big government.

    Why are the democrats not running on ObamaCare and all its wonders. Two year annivesary passed silently in the middle of a campaign season. The answer of course is that it is already showing its cost before implementation is now double over projected costs like all other big government programs. By the time it is implemented it will be ten times that cost unless it is stopped. What we will be paying for is a complete surrender of whatever freedom we have left.

    Yes, we cling to the Constitution and the freedoms granted in the Constitution that the left hates and violates each year stealing more of our freedom.

    Is Obama running on ending the death penalty on a national basis? Are any Democratic senators? the answer is no and none ever have and won. It is a lite to act like the democrats are fighting to end the death penalty.

    Drake, you fit right in with the Democratic Party that has a long history of lies that even their current website tries desperately to hide. One question? They brag about their 200 year history and the first year they mentions is 1930 election of FDR. Why do you suppose that is? Could be that it would have to show that they have a long history of being on the wrong side of every moral evil this country has ever had starting with slavery, civil war to keep slavery, the Democratic Party terror arm, the terrorizing, beating, burning, lynching KKK. Or how about the party that developed Jim Crow segregation and put it into practice. Yeah, that history is something I would want to hide as well. But now they are the party of abortion and big godless government and high taxes.

    What is sad is that any Catholic bishop ever was seen next to anyone in a party with this history.

  11. Excellent historical clarifications. Indeed, by the spring of 1973 (only a few months after the Roe decision), Nixon was beginning to get entangled in the Watergate issue.

    The pro-life movement (as we know it today), as you pointed out, was triggered by the Roe decision and was formed out of shock and justifiable outrage at the SC’s decision.

  12. Deacon John,

    Your personal history sounds exactly like mine. I too worked for McGovern and, before that, for Robert Kennedy. And my thinking used to be “any Democrat will be better than a Republican”. It took me until 1992 to finally realize that the party had left me and gone where I simply could not follow. Since then I’ve been registered as an Indpendent, but there hasn’t been a single Democrat on the national level that I can vote for. And, on thestate and local level, here in Manhattan, there isn’t anyone, Democrat or Republican, that I can comfortably support. In other words, NO ONE represents me at all.

  13. Maggie,

    I share your frustration. These politicians are all either as plastic as game show hosts or so clearly in the pocket of big monied supporters that we simply can’t trust them. Politics has become so sickening and evil on both sides of the aisle that few people of strong character want to get involved. As a result, we get our current slate of presidential contenders. Mitt, who changes positions like his underwear. Newt, a convenient Catholic who has far too much baggage that he is rather proud of. Ron Paul, well…. And then Rick, who has been the most principled and consistent candidate in years (even if I don’t agree with all his positions) but who can’t attract big support money from the likes of the Koch brothers because of those principles. Sad commentary. But it looks like we will have four more years of Washington stalemate, mudslinging and divisiveness with no end in sight.

    Time for a new party, perhaps.

  14. That last statement is true, Deacon, but after we get done kicking the dems for their pro-choice platform, then what shall we attack them on?…..I live in PA and fear for the common good under our present R gov and legislature… taxes for corporations,tax loop-holes for businesses,a new Shell plant to be built will not pay any local or state taxes for fifteen years, no reporting of chemicals in fracking, castle doctrine to defend one’s life, no concern over pollution, elimination of adult basic coverage of health benefits for working poor, cuts to health and human services, and education, ….what more can I think of, and I’m going to vote for these people? R stands for RUSE…..W stood on the shore of the Lake of Gailee and in front of a Franciscan friar, said “Yes, we have to fight evil”, yes, and he did it, with more EVIL

  15. Drake, you forgot the republican attacks on the environment, the anti-immigrant policies, tax policies that only promote the tope 1% and screw the 99%, and the republicans’ defense of torture !

  16. Don’t know the details of the Shell plant being built in your state, but won’t that create “good jobs at good wages” (a phrase that was popular with 1988 Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis)? And isn’t that a good thing, if it means helping men and women find good work that supports the ones they love? It may be that the company is getting a tax break, but I’m guessing the jobs will either go to Pennsylvanie or they will go to a low-tax state.

    Truth be told, the accelerating growth of local, state and federal government in this country during the past 50 years — and the unfairly-won wage and pension agreements that their public employees obtained — haves become an economic “deadweight.” This is especially the case in places like NY, PA, NJ, CA and other states.

    It is a matter of economic injustice — borne out by study after study — that government employees in this country receive far more in compensation than their counterparts in the private and non-profit sectors. Of the wealthiest counties in this country, most of them contain the Virginia and Maryland suburbs that ring the nation’s capital.

    Of greater concern is how state and federal governments have financed themselves with debt that won’t be paid for another 20 or 30 years. This is creating another economic injustice — one against the young and the yet unborn — of “inter-generational theft.”

    I’m sorry to hear about the pain being endured in Pennsylvania, but it has long been in the making thanks to generations of irresponsible politicians and the public employee unions who bought them off. But if the problems in your state and in other “living-large” states (e.g., California, New York, NJ, Wisconsin) are not rectified now, a far greater pain bordering on misery will be inflicted on the next generation and the generation after. How fair or just would that be?

  17. Lord High Adml. Hadrian Dumblewinker Ivorytooth Jr., Esq. says:

    Since it’s been so hard for Romney to sweep up delegates from Santorum, so lots of primaries that are normally not worth much are suddenly getting their moment in the limelight.

    Jesus is psyched about this, because he’s been waiting for the Galilean Caucus to be a player ever since he first registered as a Republican.

  18. Curious indeed Ron- since the writer for the NYT was clearly using antediluvian ( a 50 cent word!) here in it’s meaning as antiquated or supremely dated.

    Still the story rightly points to an amazing transformation in the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals over the last 40 years. It is a story that too easily leads to explanations that it arose from political expediency or the actions of this political party or that operative. We are not talking a history of a little distrust- many evangelicals were taught the imperative to convert Catholics lest our soul burn in hell for following a false form of christianity.

    I, for one, credit, the only person who could have bridged this divide – the Spirit. It was the Spirit at work among many ‘ordinary’ catholic and evangelicals in the 1970′s and 1980′s who outraged at Row v Wade – took to protests and even arrests at clinics. They didn’t just protest together – they broke bread and prayed together and became friends and left with an appreciation of the other’s sincere faith and devotion to Christ.

    I witnessed this transformation personally as my late father – as strict an irish catholic conservative as anyone who posts here – would speak of how he admired the faith and biblical knowledge of his fellow abortion clinic protestors – who he would have grouped with Elmer Gantry just a few years earlier.

  19. deacon john m. bresnahan says:

    R–This is where dems fool and delude people. They convince them that issues that are NOT of crucial moral importance are equal to crushing a child’s skull as it is born. A sham. A fraud. And Dems line up to embrace it. How can you even rationally dare compare tax loophole disagreements with the killing of newly born infants?? (or the massive killing of unborn children)??? That the liberal propaganda lie machine has convinced you that prudential tax decisions you don’t like are somehow as EVIL as endorsing the killing of our young is abominable. You may not like conservative attitudes toward tax policies, but tax policies are in the realm of prudential decisions, not in the realm of intrinsic evil as is the direct killing of innocent human life which is officially and strongly endorsed and promoted by the Democratic Party.
    Democrats will not even respect the consciences of Catholics and other Christians on crucial issues. If there ever was a last straw that should drive thinking, moral Catholics from the Dem Party it is that vote in the U.S. Senate in which the Dems lined up to make sure there would be no conscience protection for Catholics and others with regard to the federal government’s Obamacare religion of coercive federal mandates into immoral areas that trample on people’s moral beliefs. Based on that vote almost all the Henry VIII’s in the Senate have a “D” after their name while the heirs of St. Thomas More and the right of conscience virtually all have “R” after their names .

  20. Lord High Adml. Hadrian Dumblewinker Ivorytooth Jr., Esq. says:

    The Queen Mary’s have “I”, the Cardinal Wolsey’s have “L”, the Charles V’s have “P” (that’s Prohibition Party: very low representation, those guys), the Ferdinand II’s have “RU” (Raza Unida), the Maximilian I’s have “M” (Marijuana Party), the Qin Shi Huang’s have “G” (Green).

  21. Yep. I’ve been saying this here for some time. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The two parties have divided into a pro religion party and an anti religion party. Not only is the Republican Party pro religion, it is as pro Catholic a party as ever in the history of this country.

    And may I say, Obama has been the most anti religious, anti Catholic president in the history of the country.

  22. I’m with Mark. You keep bringing up that same line every time. Where’s the proof. And even so, so what? Senator Byrd was in the KKK, and at one time the Democrats supported slavery and Jim Crow.

  23. Mark Greta says:

    Peter, you are about as lost as Drake.

    Republicans are not anti environment, only anti idiotic junk science that destorys jobs and cost billions while improving nothing. Wasn’t Obama out touting all the drilling he is doing this past week and approving the pipleline. Of course he only approved a portion of it. Nothing like a pipeline to nowhere pumping only Obama BS. Thought the environmental whackos are made at Obama now? Did you check your talking points on this one. But I hope Obama does run hard on protecting the environment and standing tall on no drilling anywhere the unless it has approval of the hug a tree crowd while gas goes through the roof. It will only drive the stake in the party of whacko’s faster.

    It called anti “illigal immigrant” and I hope that Obama and his party run on full amnesty and citizenship for all illegals and free everything for each of them. How about running ads touting that popular ‘Dream Act’ in the campaign.

    Tax the rich. No matter that the 1% already pays about 40% of all the income taxes today and the bottom 50% pay no income tax. I think it is amazing that any party would use the term coined by a group of total lawbreaking idiots from occupy and use it as a campaign slogan. When the occupy crowd really goes wild this summer with their rapes and murders and trashing everything they touch, I bet that strategy will play will in the country of using the same lanugage.

    Oh and that republicans and torture and guantanamo and patriot act…Oh wait, most of those stayed in place under Obama even to this day and he has added that a president doesn’t even need to talk to congress for approval before going to war with Iran or libya or killing americans without trial. Bush got bashed to the end of the earth for waterboarding caught terrorist to get info to save lives. Obama has just made policy that he as president can kill American citizens without trial. Kind of a little more serious than waterboarding someone captured in the act of terror. And the press was silent when it would have screamed to the ends of the earth had it been W. Bush.

  24. Mark Greta says:

    Deacon John, you have it about right. When you have nothing to sell because you have made a huge mess of everything, you run saying vote for me becuse the other guys are just like us.

    Can anyone tell me what Obama is running on to be reelected in 2012? Has he outlined his big plans and how they will be paid for over the next four years? Some people bought Change last time.

    He promised last time to have immigration reform that included amnesty. he is promising it again, but only to select crowds of people. Promise once shame on me..

    He stopped enforcing many laws on the books. Which laws will he chose to obey or ignore? He did not run on having 20 something czars. Is that the plan for the second term?

    He promised he would balance the budget and provide millions of new jobs. Will he keep doing the same thing next term with a new permanent 8% unemployment and 18-25% underemployed? Will our debt continue to rise with new record deficits every month as we saw in Februrary?

    Will he do something about the lastest estimate for Obamacare now estimated to cost at least double the budget blow out price already in the plan? Will he load up the jails with those not buying Obamacare insurance or go after their salaries?

    What is he running on, anyone know?

  25. Was the Republican party the pro catholic party when it led the invasion of Iraq against the wishes of Pope John Paul II?

  26. To support the Iraq War is not being anti Catholic. JPII issued an opinion, not a Church position. Otherwise you could not have American Catholic soldiers, especially Catholic chaplins.

  27. Katie Angel says:

    The problem with your statistic regarding taxes paid is that that same 1% earns something like 80% of the total income. Using that measurement, they are significantly underpaying their portion of the tax load.

    I took a number of statistics classes in college and my post-graduate studies and one thing I know without a doubt is that you can use statistics to say anything you want them to just by picking what you are going to use as comparisons.

    Currently, neither party currently has a plan that will do anything to improve the economy and get people back to work.

  28. Katie Angel says:

    My dearly departed husband worked in state government for over 25 years (he was the IT help desk coordinator for a two year college) and made about half of what he could have commanded in the private sector. He worked for the college because it was better for his heart (he had a congenital heart condition) and it meant that one of us wasn’t under extreme stress all the time. He did have excellent health benefits pyhowever, we did pay over $400 a month as our part of the premiums), a defined benefit pension plan and a liberal vacation plan and it was a worthwhile trade-off for us. And one that we could chose because of my much higher salary. I am really tired of people trashing government employees – people who work hard for their money and often do it out of a commitment to public service. It is time for you to find a new “whipping boy”.

  29. Katie Angel says:

    Maybe its because tax issues actually impact the lives of most people whereas abortion doesn’t? The majority of Catholics will never have an abortion and may not even have an emotional connection to someone who does. As difficult as it may be to admit, most people are driven more by self-interest than altruism when it comes to politics – and that this what this boils down to for most people. The Church lost a lot of its moral authority when it began to publically align itself with one political party and lobby for/against legislation instead of speaking out on morality without endorsing a specific bill/law or party.

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