2016-06-30

Excerpted with permission from The New Republic

When he set out last year on his crusade for the presidency, John McCain aimed to change his party's views about a lot of things: campaign finance reform, foreign policy, even tax cuts. But religion wasn't one of them. In fact, the Arizona senator's two decades in Congress had been marked by an evident lack of interest in the intersection of faith and politics. All of which makes it particularly strange that it is at this intersection that his candidacy seems poised to leave its most lasting impression.

Until the McCain campaign began calling Michigan Catholics to tell them about George W. Bush's speech at Bob Jones University, the dominant story about religion's role in American politics went something like this. Once upon a time, denominational differences divided white American Christians. Episcopalians looked down on Baptists. Baptists despised Pentecostals. Everyone feared Catholics. But after World War II, Catholic upward mobility and Protestant ecumenism made such distinctions less and less important. And soon those distinctions were overwhelmed by another kind of religious divide: between the Americans whom the 1960s secularized and those whom secularization repelled. Ronald Reagan exploited this divide masterfully, cobbling together an alliance between churchgoing Southern evangelicals and churchgoing Northern Catholics. Catholics had traditionally voted Democratic, but in 1984 a majority of the most religious Catholics backed Reagan, as did 78% of all religiously active Christian conservatives. By the 1990s, the landscape, at least among white Christians, seemed clear: Republicans were the clerical party, and Democrats were the anti-clerical party; denomination didn't matter.

At least, that was conventional wisdom until a month ago, when McCain, in a series of strange coincidences, upended it. The first coincidence was the order of the GOP primaries. In the 1980s, Lee Atwater and Carroll Campbell had moved South Carolina's primary forward to protect against insurgents coming out of New Hampshire. Last year, Governor John Engler, hoping to get some of the anti-insurgent credit himself, did the same for Michigan. Quite by accident, one of the most Catholic states in the nation followed one of the most evangelical. The second coincidence was McCain's Manichean view of the world. Infuriated by the religious right's ruthless attacks on him in South Carolina, McCain, a man who agreed with conservative evangelical leaders on most issues, nonetheless decided they were his--and the GOP's--mortal enemies. And his campaign lashed back, telephoning Michigan Catholics to inform them of Bush's speech at anti-Catholic Bob Jones. The calls packed an added punch because of a third coincidence: Catholic resentment of the GOP leadership's recent decision to pass over a priest for the chaplaincy of the House. Individually, none of these factors would have mattered much. Together, they have exposed the supposed alliance between culturally conservative, devout Catholics and culturally conservative, devout evangelicals--an alliance at the heart of the GOP's claim to be America's majority party--as a myth.

In recent years, no one has tried harder to make that myth a reality than the leaders of the religious right. Two decades ago, Jerry Falwell praised Pope John Paul II as the "best hope we Baptists ever had" and welcomed Catholics into his Moral Majority. Ralph Reed called the alliance between Catholics and evangelicals "the most effective political force that the country had ever seen," and in 1995 the Christian Coalition formed a separate branch of its organization, the Catholic Alliance, to recruit Catholics into its ranks. Pat Robertson began lacing his public pronouncements with Vatican teachings and Catholic vernacular, and the Alliance mailed out a quarter of a million introductory solicitations to Catholics across the country.

Their inspiration, of course, was Reagan. Their problem was that while Reagan did indeed bring Catholics and evangelicals together, it was not, as Reed and Robertson wanted to believe, in opposition to secularization. The Reagan coalition was a coalition against liberalism: against military weakness abroad, against high taxes, against welfare and affirmative action. Moral issues per se--abortion, school prayer, gay rights--were a small part of it. Yet in the Clintonized political environment of the 1990s, with the Cold War over and the Democratic Party's left wing defanged, those moral issues were the only foundations on which an evangelical-Catholic alliance could rest.

They weren't enough. A 1996 study by University of Notre Dame Professor David Leege revealed that half of all Catholics who regularly attend Mass consider themselves Democrats. In fact, less observant Catholics were the ones more likely to vote for the GOP. The belief that religious Catholics were gravitating en masse toward the Republican Party because of its stance on abortion or other moral issues was, in Leege's view, "historically myopic and sociologically mistaken."

The Catholic Alliance, which Robertson and Reed had hoped would attract half a million members, never managed more than 30,000. Catholic bishops, who opposed Robertson's and Reed's views on welfare and feared their proselytizing instincts, refused to distribute Alliance pamphlets in their parishes and demanded they include the disclaimer, "Catholic Alliance does not presume to represent the views of all Catholic Americans."

Ten months after its founding, the Catholic Alliance seceded from the Christian Coalition. The Alliance's director explained the break as a way to "address Catholics in the community who may be reticent about joining." One Alliance member put it more bluntly: The group was pushed out by "negative pressure from narrow-minded fundamentalists" within the Coalition. Today the Alliance, boasting more than 125,000 members, is led by Raymond Flynn, a former Democratic mayor of Boston and a man whose politics are defined much more by left-wing economics than by the moral agenda of the religious right.

What Robertson and Reed didn't understand was that while many devout Catholics dislike abortion and homosexuality, their personal opposition doesn't translate into support for legal prohibition in the way it does for evangelicals. While Catholic and evangelical doctrine both oppose abortion, Catholics are less likely to favor an outright ban than evangelicals. Similarly, half of all conservative evangelicals believe homosexuality is morally unacceptable and should not be tolerated, while only a quarter of active Catholics agree.

These figures underscore a Catholic distrust of what many perceive as heavy-handed evangelical moralism. Catholics, in general, are more comfortable with the idioms of personal responsibility than with those of biblical retribution. These discontinuities help explain the attitudes of Northern Catholics like Peter King, the pro-life New York representative who defected from the Bush camp to McCain after the Texas governor's Bob Jones visit. King once famously lamented, "We're going to turn ourselves into a party of barefoot hillbillies who go to revival meetings," suggesting that it is not merely the ideology but the tone of the religious right that he found offensive. And tonal dissonance can trump convergence on issues, creating an unbridgeable cultural chasm. For example, when William Donahue, president of the Catholic League, which monitors anti-Catholic discrimination, recalls his association with the Christian Coalition, he dwells on one particular indignity: nonalcoholic beer. They got along fine in the seminar rooms, Donahue admits, but when the Catholics and evangelicals met afterward, and Robertson refused to allow the Catholics to have a midafternoon drink, Donahue decided that "the day we are going to come together as a really united coalition is further down the road than ever before."

He was right. In the wake of Bob Jones, many pundits have speculated that the GOP's Catholic-evangelical alliance is crumbling. That's half true. In fact, it crumbled long ago. It just took John McCain's insurgency for everyone to see it.

more from beliefnet and our partners