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Minority Vote

More than half a century ago, John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the first – and so far the only – Catholic president in American history. This landmark election didn’t just welcome in the first Catholic president, says Larry McAndrews (History, Emeritus). It introduced a whole new era of influence.

From JFK’s historic 1961 speech that challenged NASA and the nation to put a man on the moon to Vice President Joe Biden’s more recent call for a “moon shot” to cure cancer, Catholic leaders have played a vital role in inspiring our country to break through boundaries and achieve the seemingly unachievable. 

“American Catholics opened the door to the White House in 1960,” McAndrews writes in his latest book, “What They Wished For: American Catholics and American Presidents, 1960-2004” (2014). He adds, “In the face of constitutional challenges, political objections, religious resentments, internal squabbles and a whole lot of history, they have kept it wide open ever since.”

Today nearly one-third of Congress members, two-thirds of Supreme Court justices and almost one-half of the candidates in the early running to become our nation’s next president identify as Catholic. Not bad for a religious denomination that was once on the fringes of our nation’s political scene.

Two JFKs and an untold story 
Despite differences in race, class, gender and party, McAndrews argues, Catholics have experienced a growing acceptance in national politics and have influenced modern presidents in a profound way. In fact, Catholic voters have gained so much relevance and influence, he contends, that a majority of them actually voted against one of their own in the 2004 election that pitted John Kerry against George W. Bush. 

“Both Kennedy and Kerry were Catholic Democratic senators from Massachusetts,” McAndrews notes. “Kerry was the first Catholic major-party presidential nominee since Kennedy. Yet Kennedy’s success in overcoming considerable anti-Catholicism in 1960 helped assure that Kerry’s religion would not be a factor in 2004.”

While virtually every American voter knew that Kennedy was Catholic and many voted for or against him solely because of his faith, McAndrews adds, most Catholics did not know that Kerry was one of them. The overwhelming majority of Catholics voted for Kennedy regardless of their politics, whereas most Catholics voted against Kerry regardless of their religion. 

“In a little over four decades, most American Catholics had gone from celebrating to repudiating one of their own,” he writes, “authoring a story that historians have yet to tell.” As an American Catholic who has taught United States history, McAndrews has long been fascinated by the relationships between his church and his government, and with the two JFKs serving as the genesis of his book project he set out to answer what happened between 1960 and 2004 to cause such a dramatic shift.

Revelatory research 
“What They Wished For” proceeds chronologically through nine chapters, one for each president, with each broken down into three major issues – issues that, themselves, lie at the heart of Catholic social teaching. They are war and peace; social justice; and life and death. The research that informs his examination is unmistakable – more than 100 pages of footnotes point to various sources that include government files, White House memos, archives of presidential libraries and various archdioceses to name a handful. 

And that in-depth research process proved both surprising and enlightening. Based on his previous research, McAndrews had concluded that American Catholics, and especially their bishops, had not been all that successful in terms of influencing their government. For example, the bishops’ long quest for various forms of federal aid to Catholic elementary and secondary schools has largely been in vain.

“Archbishop Francis Hurley of Anchorage, Alaska, once jokingly told me that the motto of his fellow bishops was ‘Let us not test our political muscle, because it isn’t there,’” McAndrews recalls. “So when I wrote the proposal for this book I titled it ‘What They Wished For,’ as in ‘be careful what you wish for,’ half-expecting that it would be another story of failure.” 

By the time McAndrews finished writing, however, he had discovered that, while the bishops and their followers had their share of setbacks on issues such as abortion and the Iraq wars, they also experienced a fair amount of successes ranging from civil rights to faith-based government programs. And take a look at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner as an example of an important tradition in American politics, says Scott Wilson ’91, a Green Bay area attorney who studied political science and government at St. Norbert College. 

Organized and held in honor of former New York Governor Al Smith, the very first Catholic presidential candidate, this charity dinner run by the Archdiocese of New York brings U.S. presidential candidates together every four years for a night filled with self-deprecating humor. It’s a refreshing break from politics as usual, and it occurs at a crucial moment, often serving as the final time the candidates share a stage before the election itself. 

Catholic complexity
In the midst of a presidential election year, McAndrews’ book is, perhaps, particularly intriguing to consider. While he is wary of peering into or attempting to predict the future, pointing to the words of his colleague Wayne Patterson (History), who says that “historians predict the past,” he does note that if, recent history serves as a guide, Catholics will likely serve as “swing” voters who could play a crucial role in deciding the election. After all, every candidate since 1972 who has gone on to win the “Catholic vote” has won the popular vote as well. 

That Catholic electorate is intricate, however, as voters have been closely divided between the two major parties in recent presidential elections. Dig a little deeper and there are some interesting developments taking place within that Catholic voting bloc at large, according to Ivy Cargile (Political Science), whose research hones in on the political behavior of racial and ethnic communities, and the Latino electorate in particular.

A growing population of Latino voters – a significant proportion of whom identify as Catholic – is impacting this electorate. “We have seen a consistent increase in the number of Latino eligible voters since 2004,” says Cargile, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a total of 800,000 Latinos turn 18 each year. That’s an average of one every 30 seconds, or more than 66,000 individuals per month. In the 2016 presidential race, it is estimated that the Latino electorate is going to make up more than 10 percent of the electorate at large.

“I think the 2016 presidential and any presidential [election] from here on out is going to be influenced by the Latino electorate,” she adds. “The key here is if the campaigns are able to get them mobilized.” Traditionally a Democratic cohort, one of the fascinating characteristics of this group is that it is made up of sophisticated voters who cannot easily be pigeonholed. 

Although a significant proportion of Hispanics do identify as Catholic, for example, it’s a misconception that Latinos take their religion into the voting booth, Cargile adds. Their faith matters, but so do the big issues that could impact their own lives and the lives of their children – the economy, health care, education and immigration, for example.

A prominent voice 
While McAndrews says he encourages readers to draw their own conclusions from his book, one lesson it does seem to offer is that, although the separation of church and state is sacred in the United States, so, too, is freedom of religion. “Every president has to strike a balance between these two pillars of the First Amendment,” he notes, “and since about one of every four Americans is Catholic, a president cannot afford to overlook the interests of their church.” 

And although no one can predict with certainty who will be elected in 2016, it is clear, McAndrews adds, that he or she will have to listen to the Catholic voice. 

Election years on campus

Researching – The St. Norbert College political science faculty is immersed in research that ranges from the public’s preference and perception of the selection of judges to the political process in developing nations.

Studying – Political Parties & Elections (POLI 332) is a course that examines the role of political parties and elections at the state and national levels in the U.S. It focuses on elections as a mechanism that links the citizens and the institutions of government in a democracy.

Listening – The Great Decisions series addresses world topics of our time with an eye on international economic, political and social subjects that are both current and provocative. This program of the Foreign Policy Association runs every spring semester. St. Norbert is one of only two schools in Wisconsin to offer the full series.

Encountering – Over the years many presidential and other candidates have asked to book St. Norbert College facilities for stops on their campaign trails, and have been generously accommodated. Such opportunities have provided our students with extraordinary front-row seats to the hustings. 

Supporting – Students have the opportunity to get involved and promote political awareness on campus through involvement in organizations such as the College Republicans or College Democrats.

Polling – The St. Norbert College Strategic Research Institute has formed a partnership with Wisconsin Public Radio to conduct The Wisconsin Survey, a biannual statewide survey on political issues.

Registering – The Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice & Public Understanding is available to assist with voter registration at regular, published hours. Students can also register at the polling site. 

Voting – Students can vote just a couple of blocks away from campus at the De Pere Community Center, and Miller Center interns typically offer a shuttle service to facilitate voting.

March 14, 2016