Is it 1960 Again?

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, anti-Catholicism, which the Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger once called “the deepest bias in the history of the American people,” was still quite strong – and open. And not only among the usual suspects, like the KKK and Southern rednecks. The American poet Peter Viereck famously observed that anti-Catholicism was “the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals,” as easy to find in New York or Boston as in Alabama or Tennessee.

So it was no wonder that Kennedy felt he had to go before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960 and assure Protestant leaders, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.”

It was a clever speech, crafted by Ivy League advisors and progressive priests, and intended to reassure nervous Protestants that the pope would not be dictating policy to America – in effect saying Kennedy’s Catholicism would not have any bearing on his decisions as president.

Wags have commented, accurately if uncharitably, that there was no little irony in this pre-emptive surrender, because the Kennedy boys’ Catholicism was so private, they mostly didn’t even impose it on themselves. But the tactic worked. Kennedy won, though public Catholicism – then strong in America – lost.

The usual feelgooders inside and outside the Church celebrated the overcoming of a long-standing prejudice. But anti-Catholicism did not and still has not gone away: witness the outrageous grilling of Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett last week in a Senate judiciary hearing by Dianne Feinstein, Al Franken, and Dick Durbin.

I will pass over the slimy details, which you may read here, except to say that “orthodox Catholic” may be about to become a political term for someone whose religious beliefs disqualify him or her from public office. Perhaps even make them unwelcome in polite society.

You can’t be surprised that the Democrats – even the nominally Catholic Durbin – attacked. They are wedded to the belief that contraception, abortion, gay marriage, transgender rights (even for very young children) not only define our “deepest values” as Americans, but must be embraced by any faith that wishes to remain a respectable presence in American society.

Archangel Michael Hurls the Rebellious Angels into the Abyss by Luca Giordano, c. 1666 [Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna]

“Unorthodox” Catholics, sometimes in larger percentages than the general population, accept all those things too, and so are not a problem – at least in politics. God may someday have a word to say about that.

Who can forget the absurd spectacle of then-Senator Joe Biden – an unorthodox Catholic who has even performed a gay “wedding” – questioning Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas about whether he supported the “right” version of natural law?

There’s always talk in Washington about politicians using “dog whistles” to signal dark meanings to their uncouth followers. (Those making the claims don’t seem to realize that they are admitting that they too are dogs, since they hear things most of us don’t.)

The senators last week were playing a multi-pronged game. They blew the dog whistle, signaling to the radical left base of the Democrats that it’s okay to go after real Catholics.

But in addition, they knew – something perhaps even more outrageous than the attack itself – that there would be no repercussions. Google their names. There’s been almost no press coverage.

Public figures across the country go in fear of expressing the slightest doubts about the current craze for “transgender rights.” The media pounce. Jobs are lost, careers ruined, when people support the traditional family, oppose gay marriage, believe “man and woman He created them.”

But U.S. Senators can brashly attack the beliefs of a nominee, beliefs central to the West for two millennia, by playing off residual American anti-Catholicism and the new sexual dispensation. They know there will be no price to pay.

Henceforth, that’s our fault.

It’s worth remembering that when Kennedy had to kowtow, the Supreme Court was still five years away from ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut that states could not bar married couples from using contraception. Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion was a decade in the future. Gay rights, let alone gay marriages, were unthinkable. The Houston pastors in 1960 would have stood with Catholics in those matters, even if they retained long-standing prejudices about Catholic belief, practice, and public influence.

Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, Muslims stand with us today. But by a kind of backhanded compliment, except for some evangelicals, the others get a free pass because they don’t really represent a threat to the sexual totalitarians. Catholicism – real Catholicism – still does.

Or can. This latest outrage is not something to notice and deplore, and then forget until next time. There’s only one way to respond to this threat to our rights as Catholics, as well as to our precious, if fragile, American religious pluralism: holy anger.

No Catholic proud of the name can let this pass without pursuing every avenue to make sure this sort of naked bias never shows the cloven hoof again.

The papers and television news have been silent about it? We need to deluge them with messages pointing out their complicity in America’s “deepest” historical prejudice.

We need to speak out in private and public, make common cause – notwithstanding what the know-it-alls at La Civiltà Cattolica in the Vatican call an “ecumenism of hate” – with evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, anyone of good will, to change the public ethic, which would never tolerate such outrages towards people of other religious, cultures, races.

We need to make sneering at “orthodox Catholics” as unacceptable, even in private, as – say – “Islamophobia.”

We didn’t get from Houston 1960 to Washington 2017 by one large leap. Industrious cultural radicals burrowed into institutions, hollowed them out, and replaced our traditional morals and public values.

If people with dubious aims and poor arguments, who were the fringe only fifty years ago, were able to do it, so can we.

Shame on us, if we do not.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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