In 1960, millions of Catholics voted for John F. Kennedy for little reason other than that he was a Catholic. In 2004, millions of Catholics, myself included, will vote enthusiastically for George W. Bush because this Texas Methodist has a clearer understanding of, and a more serious commitment to, the Catholic vision of the free and virtuous society than his Catholic opponent. This is, to put it gently, a dramatic change. And it requires some explaining. Part of the explanation is that 1960 was the high-water mark of Catholic tribalism in American electoral politics; Catholics today are no longer a multiethnic tribe who vote their tribal loyalties (early and often, as they say in Chicago). Then there’s the unhappy fact that John Forbes Kerry’s personality is a lot more WASP-Brahmin than Last Hurrah. But these explanations touch only the surface of things. Millions of Catholics are going to vote for George W. Bushand millions of Catholics are, frankly, appalled at the thought of their fellow Catholic, John Kerry, as president of the United States - because of two dramatic changes in ideas and institutions over the past four decades. Catholic social doctrine has changed; so has the Democratic Party. In those changes lie the deeper reasons for my vote for George Bush, and the votes of millions of other Catholics across the country.
The Maturation of Catholic Social Doctrine
In the politics of 1960, Catholic social doctrine meant little more than the church’s traditional support for trade unions: the George Meany/George Higgins axis, if you will. Catholic political intellectuals like Eugene McCarthy debated the meaning of the common good and subsidiarity, but these debates had little traction in public life. That has all changed, thanks to the Second Vatican Council and the social magisterium of Pope John Paul II.
The council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965) outlined a pluralistic vision of the free and virtuous society; John Paul II has filled in the outline with the encyclicals Laborem Exercens (1981), Centesimus Annus (1991) and Evangelium Vitae (1995). The church’s social doctrine now teaches that the free and virtuous society is a complex set of interactions among a democratic political community, a free economy and a public moral culture. The last, John Paul II insists, is the key to the rest. Democracy and the market are not machines that can run by themselves. If free politics and free economics are going to promote genuine human flourishing, the tremendous energies they set loose have to be tempered and directed by a vibrant public moral culture. The culture is the key to the entire edifice. A culture that teaches freedom-as-license is going to wreck democracy and the free economy, sooner or later. A culture capable of sustaining the high adventure of democracy over time is a culture that teaches and celebrates freedom for excellencefreedom as the way we choose the good as a matter of habit.
John Paul II has also developed the church’s social doctrine by teaching that abortion, euthanasia and the range of questions raised by the new biotechnologies are, in fact, social justice issues. Addressing the life issues is a crucial part of the church’s social doctrine. In Evangelium Vitae, which completes Centesimus Annus, the pope insisted that when grave moral evilswrongsare legally defined as rights, the entire democratic project is threatened. A democracy that arrogates to itself the power to declare entire classes of human beingsthe unborn, the radically handicapped, the elderlyoutside the boundaries of common concern and protection is a democracy at war with itself (a point Lincoln made a century and a half ago, in his 1858 House Divided speech).
Thus, in the developed Catholic view of things, not all issues are equal. Some issues must weigh more heavily on the conscience of a president, a legislator or a voter. Indeed, the life issues are of such gravity that opposition to the requirements of natural justice on these questions (which is also opposition to the church’s settled teaching) seriously damages a Catholic’s communion with the church.
I do not know whether George W. Bush or John Kerry has read Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae; I rather doubt it. But President Bush gets the vision, and Senator Kerry is manifestly blind to it. The president has spoken eloquently about an America in which every child is protected in law and welcomed in lifean America in which a culture of life (a phrase Bush has borrowed unapologetically from Pope John Paul II) sustains legal protection for the unborn, the inconvenient elderly and the handicapped. Senator Kerry has voted time and again to permit infanticide, in the form of partial-birth abortion. And like certain fellow Catholics in the U.S. SenateJoseph Biden, Thomas Daschle, Richard Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Edward Kennedy, Barbara Mikulski and othersKerry has voted time and again to block the confirmation of Catholics who want to apply the elementary principles of justice (which, to repeat, coincide with the teaching of the church) to abortion jurisprudence in the federal courts.
Indeed, if there is anything that captures the truly bizarre nature of the second change that has led so many Catholics into the Bush camp, it was the sight of Catholic senators on the Judiciary Committee joining a scurrilous attack last year by New York’s Democratic Senator Charles Schumer on the Catholic views of a superbly qualified nominee for the federal bench, William Pryorall in the name of defending the non-negotiable abortion license.
The Transformation of the Democratic Party
Like many of my fellow-Catholic Bush voters, I was genetically a Democrat, having grown up in an environment where Catholic and Democrat were synonymous. Have we changed? Perhaps. But the party into which we were born, so to speak, has changed far more dramatically than we have. And that is why some of us have left it, while others regularly vote for Republicans.
In retrospect, the George McGovern revolution of 1972 was the first major fracture in the old Catholic-Democratic alliance. But the electoral debacle of 1972 did not teach the Democratic Party anything. Remember the old charge that the McGovern Democrats were the party of acid, amnesty and abortion? What was the most enduring of the three? It was the abortion license, a lethal infection that has thoroughly corrupted the moral fabric of the Democratic Party. The Democrats have become ever more intransigently the party of abortion-on-demand; it is inconceivable that any sort of pro-life candidate could be on a Democratic national ticket, and it is extraordinarily difficult for pro-lifers to become Democratic candidates for the Senate. The Democrats have also become the party whose judicial nominees want to create ersatz rights to euthanasia and gay marriage. The Democratic Party has become the party of freedom understood as personal willfulnessthe party of the imperial autonomous self. Which is to say, that the Democrats have become the party that rejects the teaching of Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae.
The breakpoint for many of us former Democrats came, in fact, three years before Evangelium Vitae, when Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvaniaa pro-life, pro-family, pro-worker embodiment of the old Catholic-Democratic alliance and a proven voter-getterwas denied the opportunity to address the 1992 Democratic National convention that first nominated Bill Clinton. If pro-abortion passions in the Democratic Party trumped the Catholic governor of a crucial swing state, well, then, there wasn’t much room left in the Democratic Party for the likes of me. Others evidently felt, and feel, the same way. That’s another thing that has led us to George Bush, the president who pushed through the partial-birth abortion ban that John Kerry sought to override. Indeed, were Kerry to be elected president and be given the opportunity to shape the federal judiciary in his image and likeness, any hope for legal protection for the unborn would probably be gone for my lifetime.
In my case, the break with my genetic party was also influenced by international politics. If Bob Casey was my last Democratic hero on the domestic policy front, it was a Democrat who died in 1983, Henry M. Jackson, who was the last national Democratic figure to understand the world and America’s distinctive responsibilities in it. Scoop Jackson, not Jimmy Carter, created modern U.S. international human rights policy; and it was Jackson Democrats who brought that policy to life in the Reagan administration and in Jacksonian initiatives like the National Endowment for Democracy.
Judging by his 19-year record in the Senate, John Kerry is the polar opposite of a Jackson Democrat. Kerry was wrong about the nuclear arms race and the end-game of the cold war, wrong about Central America, wrong about the first Persian Gulf war and wrong (insofar as one can discern his position) on the war in Iraq. The Bush administration’s record has not been perfect on the national security/international affairs front. But to a Jackson-Democrat-turned-Republican like me, there is a world of difference between recognizing the serious failures of U.S. public diplomacy since 9/11 and a foreign policy approach that imagines the impossible (French and German support for deposing Saddam Hussein) and proposes the imprudent (waiting for French and German permission to do what needs to be donewhether that be in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Darfur or wherever.)
When Scoop Jackson died, one of his aides said to me, The last adult is gone. That was, arguably, true about the Senate Democrats. But it is not true of George W. Bush. He is an adult with an adult’s view of the world: realistic, yet not cynical; idealistic about freedom’s future, but without conventional multilateralist illusions; steadfast and courageous. George W. Bush is the kind of president Scoop Jackson would have eagerly supported (as he supported Ronald Reagan); I cannot imagine Senator Jackson summoning any enthusiasm for John Kerry, the kind of Democrat who twice denied Scoop the party’s presidential nomination. That’s another reason I will vote, gratefully, for George W. Bush.
Rebuilding the New Home
The Republican Party is not a perfect home for Catholics. Its libertarian wing is a cause for concern on the life issues; its corporate wing seems too frequently interested in federal protection and too infrequently attentive to worker retraining. No political party is ever really home to those who take Catholic social doctrine seriously. But for Catholics like me, the party of Lincoln is a far more comfortable place today than could have been imagined 40 years ago; moreover, it is an immeasurably more comfortable platform from which to work on the great issues of the day than Michael Moore’s party.
Republicans now have a real chance to fashion a long-term governing majority, built in part on the new ecumenism of Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Catholic social doctrineincluding those priority life issuescould become an even more important factor in shaping the political philosophy of that new majority than it already is in a Bush White House, where staffers and speech writers already take Catholic social thought seriously. There is no chance of doing this in today’s Democratic Party, because the party’s leadership and the overwhelming majority of its activists are unalterably committed to the pro-abortion agenda, to embryo research (which Senator Kerry has tried to demagog in a singularly ill-informed and cynical way) and to the utterly un-Catholic concepts of human dignity and freedom that the abortion license and embryo research exemplify.
Catholics struggling today with their genetic Democratic political loyalties should remember this: Americans don’t just elect a president; we elect a party and its people, who will fill the federal government for yearsand the appellate bench for decades. A second Bush administration will give Catholics an unprecedented opportunity to help create a new governing majority informed by the riches of Catholic social doctrine. That cannot be done in the Democratic Party. And that is yet another reason to vote for a good, decent and brave man, George W. Bush, the Methodist who gets the Catholic vision better than does his Catholic opponent.