U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Dog That Hasn’t Barked

Thomas Nast Cartoon, c. 1900

This post is more an observation than an analysis (in part because I feel that a number of my fellow bloggers would have more interesting things to say on this subject than I).

When Mitt Romney announced on Saturday that his running mate would be Wisconsin Congressperson Paul Ryan, remarkably little was made of a pretty stunning fact: for the first time in U.S. history, a major party will nominate a Presidential and a Vice Presidential candidate neither of whom is a Protestant.

Just as Barack Obama’s nomination and victory in 2008, while hardly ushering in a post-racial America, indicated how much American racial attitudes have changed, the Republican Party’s decision to nominate a Mormon for President and a Catholic for Vice President is an indication of enormous changes that have taken place in religious attitudes in the last half century or so.

But while Obama’s status as the first African American major party presidential nominee–and later President–received endless comment and analysis, the absence of Protestants from the 2012 GOP ticket will, I think receive much less.* And the fact that it’s not that surprising, that Romney’s putting a Catholic on the ticket is simply no big deal (just as Obama’s having done so was not), underscores how great the changes in religious attitudes have been.

Anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism were both powerful forces in the American past (as the Thomas Nast cartoon above rather poisonously reminds us), though both have been on the wane for decades.  That they are so relatively absent today from a party whose base consists largely of voters whose Evangelical Protestantism is a critical part of their political identity is particularly interesting.  In a way the Ryan choice underscores how little anti-Mormonism became a factor within the GOP primary race this year: it appears to have been much more important for Romney to establish his ideological bona fides with party conservatives than to establish his religio-cultural bona fides with party Evangelicals (two groups with a lot of overlap, it should be said). And anti-Catholicism has long been a spent force on the U.S. right, as the composition of the Supreme Court (which, also, has no Protestant on it for the first time in US history) underscores: Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Kennedy are all Catholics.

While there are many continuities in America’s culture wars, there’s no question that the battlelines have shifted over the decades.

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* Especially if he’s elected President, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism will get lots of play, but not, I think, as indicating vast changes in American attitudes, as Obama’s election as an African American was frequently said to indicate.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting observations, Ben. Two things:

    1) It’s possible that part of the appeal of Ryan for the Romney ticket might be that anti-Catholicism is less of a problem among the Evangelical base than anti-Mormonism. Ryan could be seen as “trumping” any anti-Mormon misgivings. Conservative Evangelicals have been making common cause with conservative Catholics on social/”culture war” issues for some time, and they seemed to have no problem with Rick Santorum during the primaries. A half-century or so of thinking along the lines laid out by Herberg has probably blurred some of the sharper lines of division. But, as is implicit in your post, Mormons don’t fall under the category of “Protestant.”

    2) I was reminded of John C. Murray’s _We Hold These Truths_ . The excerpt in Hollinger and Capper, which I just read yesterday, situates the Enlightenment tradition as proceeding from the earlier tradition of Natural Law and thus claiming that the Catholic church has been/will be the guardian of the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence/Constitution. Murray writes:

    The Catholic community would still be speaking in the ethical and political idiom familiar to them as it was familiar to their fathers, both the Fathers of the Church and the Fathers of the American Republic. The guardianship of the original American consensus, based on the Western heritage, would have passed to the Catholic community, within which the heritage was elaborated long before America was. And it would be for others, not Catholics, to ask themselves whether they still shared the consensus which first fashioned the American people into a body politic and determined the structure of its fundamental law.

    Does the turn of the Republican party towards a Catholic candidate on a major party ticket in some way validate Murray’s “read” of how the cultural lines/political lines would shift?

    • I largely agree with both these points.

      On the first: to a very great extent, Catholics have been the intellectual vanguard of the post-’60s Christian right (which is one of the reasons that someone like Francis Schaeffer seems more significant for his cultural than his intellectual impact, if that makes sense). I suspect this has something to do with the greater Catholic commitment to the notion that the truth is as accessible through reason and as it is through divine revelation. Natural law is a very helpful notion if one is trying to make a political case for socially conservative positions in a secularized public sphere with a modern separation of church and state. And Catholic thinkers speak this language more naturally than Protestant ones do (at least historically).

      In this sense, as you suggest, putting a Catholic on the ticket might indeed reassure Evangelical Protestants. Certainly anti-Mormonism has been broader and more intense in the recent Evangelical past than anti-Catholicism has been. Still, I don’t think we’ve seem much sign of anti-Mormonism on the right this year.

      Murray was, of course, involved in a very successful Cold War-era attempt to reallign dominant (at least implicitly Protestant) US views of Catholicism. In the mid-20th century, the argument that Catholicism, like Fascism and Communism, was a totalitarian belief system was not uncommon. Mid-century Catholics like Murray and Cardinal Spellman helped to more or less eliminate this view (at least from polite conversation) by presenting Catholicism as the height of Americanism, rather than a threat to it.

    • I’m especially thankful for your last paragraph here — I should have specified the reason for my scare quotes around “read.” As you point out, it wasn’t that Murray was just supposing how the lines might be redrawn, but was active in redrawing them. I guess Paul Ryan could be seen as a measure of his (and others’) success. I guess William F. Buckley gave an assist here as well.

  2. Ben, I couldn’t tell if your point was that all the current Republican appointees on the Supreme Court are Catholic, in which case listing those five is accurate. But Justice Sotomayor is also Catholic (at least I remember reading so), so you’d have to include her if you were listing all the Catholics on the Court today. Six Catholics and three Jews. Who saw that day coming?! There was some comment about this when Kagan was nominated, but only as one of those passing asides that is talked about the first twenty-four hours and then disappears. Which just confirms your point, I think.

    • Exactly, Varad. I was listing the court’s five conservative / Republican Justices, not the Court’s Catholics, which of course also include Sotomayor.

  3. Great post, Ben! As I tweeted, you sum up a lot of the same thoughts I had when I heard the news the other night.

    There’s been some recent writing by Americanists within religious studies about the rethinking the term secularism, especially the ways religion is dependent upon secularism in order to hold up as a category. It strikes me that one way of thinking about secularism is to see it not as a process whereby religion “dies off” in the sense of the usual secularization thesis, but rather that secularism shifts the importance and meaning of religion and religious identities. So, perhaps what you identify here, Ben, is a product of secularism. Namely, that the old religious identities don’t carry the same sort of meaning and so they can be rearranged such that an evangelical Protestant base will support a Mormon/Catholic ticket, while Thomas Nast rolls in his grave. Secularism may mean that political identities/doctrines trump religious identities/doctrines in the public sphere, while religion still maintaining strengths in other parts of individual, social, and cultural life.

  4. On anti-Mormonism, just ran across this brief analysis by Mark Silk. He seems to think it’s still a problem among evangelicals — at least in Missouri — but it’s hard to measure since many polls aren’t asking pertinent questions.

    Anyway, FWIW, here’s the story:

    Anti-Mormonism in Missouri?

    • I hadn’t seen that, LD! Really interesting numbers. Of course that’s just one poll…though, if as Silk suggests, pollsters are not asking the right questions, we may not have much else to go on.

  5. It is indeed just one poll, and something of an outlier at that–no other recent Missouri poll shows the race as being this close. Still, the emerging conventional wisdom that evangelicals will vote for Romney over Obama at the same rate as they’ve voted for other recent Republican presidential candidates shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

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