Looking back at the most recent, and perhaps most eventful, of all presidential election seasons, one of the great non-events has been serious debate over the significance of the election of the second Catholic president of the United States. John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president only after running a gauntlet of Southern evangelicals who insisted that Kennedy’s Catholicism disqualified him from the office of the presidency; Kennedy famously assured them that his faith would not influence his politics.
Biden also faced the wrath of Southern evangelicals, but the objection lay in his politics, not his faith: he embodied the heresy of liberalism. The people most upset by Biden’s Catholicism were conservative Catholics, political allies of conservative evangelicals, who denounced Biden for supporting abortion—that is, for not sufficiently allowing his faith to influence his politics. D. G. Hart’s American Catholic should be required reading for those wishing to understand how we have arrived at this strange moment of history.
Hart is one of the leading historians of religion in America. A non-Catholic whose writing to date has primarily focused on the history of Protestantism in America, his turn to American Catholic history brings a fresh perspective to a field that has been dominated by Catholics often too close to their subject matter. As we shall see, Hart definitely has a dog in the fight, so to speak, of the political conflicts he examines, but it is not a Catholic dog. Still, more so than most Catholic historians, Hart takes theology seriously: indeed, he takes the heresy of “Americanism” as the framework for examining the political history of American Catholicism. Leo XIII first identified and condemned this heresy in his 1899 apostolic letter, Testem Benevolentiae. Though subtle and nuanced, Leo’s argument boils down to an insistence that the particular national expressions of Catholicism must never take priority over the authority of the Church universal. A leading Catholic historian once dismissed Americanism as a “phantom heresy.” Most subsequent historians have remained content to treat it as a sociological issue of assimilation with no serious theological stakes. Hart, in contrast, argues that American Catholic politics reflects the triumph of Americanism as a heresy.
Hart sees this problem across the Catholic political spectrum. Unlike most of the existing literature on Catholics and American politics, Hart’s book encompasses both Catholic liberalism and Catholic conservatism. He begins his account with an examination of Catholic liberalism in the decades immediately following Testem Benevolentiae—fair enough, since before World War II there was no self-identified “conservative” movement, much less any Catholic conservatism. The Catholic political challenge of the first half of the twentieth century lay in articulating the Church’s relation to the two dominant institutions of modernity: the state and the capitalist free market. The Church’s position on the economy had been clearly put forward in a series of papal documents, most significantly Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius IX’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931). The Church endorsed an economic vision somewhere between free-market liberalism and state socialism: affirming the right to private property, it nonetheless allowed for state regulation of the economy and promoted the right of workers to form labor unions.
In the American context, Catholic social thinkers such as Fr. John Ryan saw this vision embodied in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Still, the legitimacy of the modern state itself—that is, the modern secular state that allowed for religious pluralism—remained in question. As late as 1941, Ryan—once dubbed the “Right Reverend New Dealer”—wrote that the duty of the state was “the protection and promotion of the [one true religion] and the legal prohibition of all direct assaults upon it” (5). Most American Catholics felt there was no conflict between Catholicism and religious freedom in practice, but the Church had yet to approve of any theoretical justification for what was in fact a break from fifteen hundred years of Catholic tradition.
Many historians and theologians have told the story of the Church’s coming to terms with religious freedom. Hart provides as good a short account of this story as I can imagine. He is particularly strong in demonstrating the intensity of early opposition to John Courtney Murray, S.J., the American theologian generally credited with Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II document proclaiming the Church’s guarded embrace of disestablishment and religious pluralism. Murray’s efforts to link the American Founding and Catholicism through the tradition of natural law initially failed to persuade those guardians of orthodoxy who saw in Murray’s revision of the Church’s traditional teaching a historicism that smacked of the Modernism condemned by Pius X in 1907 (81). Father Joseph Fenton, Catholic University professor and editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review, saw in Murray’s arguments the symptom of a deeper problem: “We should, I believe, face the facts. Since the death of Pius X the Church has been directed by weak and liberal popes, who have flooded the hierarchy with unworthy and stupid men” (79). Conservatives would eventually make peace with Murray by emphasizing the natural law aspect of his argument, but they would find in the rest of Vatican II a target worthy of Fenton’s anti-modern rage.
At the same time, Hart argues that conservatives were as “modern” as the liberals they criticized, nowhere more so than in their understanding of the relation between their Catholic faith and public life. John F. Kennedy’s famous insistence on the wall of separation between his private faith and his public life had ample equivalents, even predecessors, among the Catholic leaders of the emerging conservative movement. Most notable among these was, of course, William F. Buckley. Buckley founded the National Review in 1955 to provide a forum for those seeking to build a conservative intellectual movement in America. The journal’s promotion of libertarian individualism led writers in mainstream Catholic journals such as America to accuse Buckley of betraying his Catholicism; more specifically, they took Buckley to task for his public rejection of the authority of John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris (100).
Replying to his Catholic critics, Buckley insisted that the National Review is not a Catholic publication and he is not a Catholic editor, simply an editor-who-is-Catholic; in this, he invoked the very public/private distinction that liberals had embraced in Kennedy. In Politics and Catholic Freedom (1964), Garry Wills, then a Buckley protégé, made an extended argument delimiting the authority of the Church in politics and allowing for much greater flexibility for individual conscience to discern the reach of papal authority in general (103-107). In this, conservatives contributed to the general Catholic intellectual climate that proved so hospitable to the later widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae.
Hart argues that Catholics were not so much secularizing politics as investing America with a sacredness rooted in something other than Catholicism. Liberal Catholics found their righteous cause in social justice, conservatives in libertarian individualism and its corollary, strident anticommunism. Theoretically rooted in Church teaching, these political positions soon found themselves in no need of Church authority.
Once again, conservatives took the lead. Moving from talk to action, conservative intellectuals raised up Arizona senator Barry Goldwater as their political savior. Fairly indifferent to religion, Goldwater was passionate about individual freedom and anticommunism. America learned of these passions in his 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, a blockbuster that remains the bestselling political book in the history of American publishing. An accurate expression of Goldwater’s views, the book was nonetheless ghost-written by L. Brent Bozell Jr., a Catholic and William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law. Bozell had, in turn, been recruited to write the book by another conservative Catholic activist, Notre Dame law professor Clarence Manion (115). In appealing to no authority beyond “the American founding and the powers enumerated in the U.S. Constitution,” conservative Catholics “were [like Kennedy in his politics] equally untethered to church teaching in their case for Goldwater” (121).
Bozell would come to realize this problem, but his efforts to imagine an authentically Catholic politics found no audience in mainstream conservatism. Despite Goldwater’s landslide loss to Johnson in the 1964 presidential campaign, Conscience of a Conservative remained the manifesto for “true” conservatives, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. When this vision finally won the presidency in 1980, it did so in the person of Ronald Reagan, another man of no particular faith, yet fully committed to the sacred causes of individual freedom and anticommunism.
A brief review cannot do justice to the scope and depth of Hart’s book. Though he makes clear that Americanism had triumphed in Catholic politics by the mid-1960s, he follows the story up to the present day. Aside from increasing success at the ballot box, this later period did see one significant shift in how conservative Catholics understood their Americanism. With the next generation of Catholic intellectuals, such as Michael Novak, George Weigel and Richard John Neuhaus, the strategy of separating faith and politics gave way to one of integrating faith into politics by appropriating the old Protestant notion of America as a redeemer nation. In the redemption of the world, Catholicism would play only a supporting role: “For [this generation of conservative] Roman Catholics . . . the church was not a higher loyalty, above the nation, but the greatest aid to the United States and its political institutions” (9). Hart sometimes overreaches in his rhetoric: the persuasive argument that Novak and Weigel used Catholicism to advance a political agenda at times implies, if only by omission, that these men saw in Catholicism nothing more than a political tool.
More troubling is a recurring “gotcha” snark, in which the corruption of Catholicism by politics appears as the wages of sin, the just desserts of those who dare to bring faith into the public sphere. For Hart, this is more than a failing of individual Catholics, but of Catholicism itself. He concludes that those who sought “to ground the eternal truths of their faith in the concrete realities of U.S. domestic and foreign policy . . . were merely heeding Vatican II’s call for a modern faith” (227).
Here, Hart shows his true confessional cards. An adherent of the very particular strain of Calvinism endorsed by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Hart has written extensive historical critiques of the role of evangelicals in American politics; these critiques grow out of his conviction that Christian faith in the modern world is a purely private matter and that Christian political action should be limited to protecting this privacy from intrusions by the state. True, disestablishment requires a very different kind of Christian politics than the historical models of Augustine’s Rome and Calvin’s Geneva. Catholics have clearly yet to discern that politics, but the Second Vatican Council’s charge to speak to the world and bring Christ to every area of life remains.
American Catholic: The Politics of Faith During the Cold War
By D. G. Hart
Cornell University Press, 2020
Hardcover, 280 pages
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