Why the GOP is banking on Catholics

Republican challenger Rick Santorum is one of two Catholics among the frontrunners to take on Barack Obama in the US presidential elections in November (PA)

The Republican Party used to be the exclusive preserve of America’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Yet this year the three men dominating the GOP primaries have been a Mormon and two Catholics. The candidacy of Rick Santorum (a cradle Catholic of Italian descent) has been defined by his views on natural law, promoted by a set of uncompromising positions on abortion, contraception and homosexuality. Newt Gingrich, a convert, has lamented the French Revolution for giving the world “secular humanism”. Because Newt is Newt, he’s rolled out a whole line of merchandise to promote his new faith. At one rally, reporters spotted a billboard advertising a documentary about John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage to Poland, grandly titled Nine Days that Changed the World… Hosted by Newt and Calista Gingrich. The ad, which gave the unfortunate impression that Newt had personally entertained the Pope in Warsaw with tea and cake, became the butt of journalists’ jokes.

Roughly a quarter of this season’s GOP’s primary voters have been Catholic. The party’s leadership is crowded by them – including House Majority Leader John Boehner, chairman of the House Committee on the Budget Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio, who is often tipped to be the 2012 vice-presidential nominee. For the first time in living memory, there are nearly as many Catholics in the Republican House delegation as there are in the Democratic delegation. How has this happened and what does it mean for the 2012 election?

The Republican Protestants of the 19th century had regarded the “hordes” of European Catholics arriving at Ellis Island, New York as importers of crime, disease and “un-American” ideas. Driven into the arms of the comparatively tolerant Democratic Party, Catholic immigrants found a home in liberalism and the labour movement. The first Catholic presidential nominee, Al Smith in 1928, was a Democrat. The first Catholic elected to the White House, Jack Kennedy in 1960, was a Democrat. For many, the words “Catholic” and “Democrat” were synonymous.

Ironically, the first Republican to challenge that consensus was the man who Kennedy beat in 1960: Richard Nixon. As the Democrats of the 1960s embraced feminism and arms talks with the Soviet Union, so Nixon spoke out against abortion and chided “hippies” for accepting Communist domination of Catholic eastern Europe. Nixon wasn’t just playing a political numbers game. He was also personally frustrated by the way that mainline Protestants seemed to embrace the cultural revolution of the 1960s and he was impressed with how resolutely the Catholic Church resisted it. He told a friend and adviser, Chuck Colson: “I have thought seriously about converting to Catholicism… I might have done it if I wasn’t afraid that people would say it was political… they would say there goes Tricky Dick Nixon trying to win the Catholic vote.”

Nixon never converted, but he did convert plenty of Democrats. In 1972 he won the votes of 60 per cent of America’s Catholics.

The Watergate scandal ended Nixon’s experiment in outreach. Thereafter, it wasn’t the GOP establishment that promoted a new accord between Catholics and Protestants. Surprisingly, it was the party’s Evangelicals. For the Fundamentalists and Charismatics of the 1980s, Pope John Paul II’s anti-Communism made him a hero to rival Ronald Reagan. Fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell described the President and the Pope as “the two greatest men of my lifetime”. Recognising that an effective fight against Communism and creeping cultural change required coalition building on the Right, Falwell was at the centre of a concerted effort in the 1980s to unite once-warring Christian churches around social issues. Although his Moral Majority campaign was started by Protestants, by the mid-1980s 30 per cent of its donations came from Catholics. In 1986, Falwell accepted an invitation to speak at Notre Dame University and denounced anti-Catholicism among Protestants as un-christian. Moral Majority, and its successor organisation the Christian Coalition, were models of ecumenical engagement, the first stage in a new project of “multicultural conservatism” that would make the Christian Right a force to be reckoned with.

Catholics brought two unique gifts to the resurgent social Right. The first was discipline. Evangelical activists were notoriously erratic because the Holy Spirit could lead them to do one thing one day and the opposite the next. By contrast, Catholics were used to working within a hierarchical organisation and to taking orders. The Catholics who entered the GOP’s ranks in the 1990s proved enthusiastic and highly disciplined.

Second, the Catholics brought intellectual tradition. Whenever Evangelicals argued for a political position, they tended to claim authority from the Bible or the Holy Spirit. Catholics argued on the basis of the far more tangible concept of natural law. For example, evangelicals opposed abortion because they insisted that termination was a violation of the Sixth Commandment. In contrast, Catholics had been working with the fashionable language of “human rights” for decades and were quick to extend it to the abortion debate. Catholic concepts of “personhood” or “human dignity” were far more popular, even democratic, ways of framing the right to life issue than biblical literalism.

The alliance between evangelicals and Catholics bore fruit in the administration of George W Bush. His White House took a tough stance against gay marriage and euthanasia, encouraged the Church to participate in welfare programmes, and promoted a vision of “compassionate conservatism” that arguably matched the spirit of Catholic social teaching. His pitch paid off. In 2004 Bush beat John Kerry among Catholic voters, 52-47 per cent – despite the fact that Kerry was a proud Catholic who never travelled without his rosary. When Bush visited Pope Benedict in 2008, Italian newspapers were awash with rumours that he was considering converting to Catholicism. As he ascended the steps to the Pope’s library in the Apostolic Palace, Bush was heard to whisper “What an honour!” As far as we know, Dubya remains a Protestant.

Through a Nixonian mix of cynicism and Romanticism, Catholicism has thus become a part of the fabric of the Republican Party. This means that its brand of social conservatism – once thought to be under threat from the more libertarian Tea Party tradition – is here to stay. Every Republican candidate opposed Barack Obama’s attempt to compel Catholic organisations to provide contraception through their employees’ health insurance. That marks a reversal from the historical WASP preference for widely available birth control and, in the eyes of many liberal critics, a craven attempt to win the endorsement of the American Catholic Church. Even the moderate Mitt Romney, whose wife once donated to Planned Parenthood, has embraced the Catholic position.

But the growing influence of the Catholic Church could move the GOP in a more progressive direction on one issue: immigration. The Republicans know that they have to reach out to America’s growing Hispanic population if they are to recapture the White House. On this subject, the Catholic Church has consistently asked that greater compassion be shown for those fleeing drug wars and poverty to start a new life in the US. Embracing that position would create a new generation of Hispanic Catholic converts to the Republican Party. It would amount to a final farewell to its WASP, anti-immigration heritage and would complete the Catholicisation of Republicanism by stealth. But with millions of Hispanics added to its ranks, the GOP would gain a greater prize: an unbeatable, lasting electoral majority.

Tim Stanley is a historian at Oxford and a blogger for the Daily Telegraph. His latest book, The Crusader: the Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan, is out now