The Magazine

John Kerry, in the Catholic Tradition

From the April 26, 2004 issue: He's no Mario Cuomo.

Apr 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 31 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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MY GRANDMOTHER was a Catholic Republican--which is to say, she was an Irish woman who married an old-fashioned South Dakota lawyer, and since he became a Catholic for her sake, it seemed only fair that she become a Republican for his. But like many converts, she soon outstripped her sponsor in the new faith, and she would treat with scorn the least suggestion that, say, Hubert Humphrey might be only unconsciously an agent of the dark, satanic powers.

She once told me that she had voted for just one Democrat in her entire life: a man named John F. Kennedy, and the reason for that was, well, the triumph of the old faith over the new. South Dakota politics in those days didn't bring religion much into play. If you had a good Scandinavian Protestant name like Sigurd Anderson or Nils Boe, you ran for governor; if you didn't, you didn't. But Kennedy in 1960 was a national figure, and even on the distant prairies, his name was mentioned from the parish pulpits. Politics is all well and good, but in the confessional quiet of the polling booth that year, my Republican grandmother made an act of contrition and marked her ballot for her fellow Catholic.

Of course, other voters marked their share of ballots against Kennedy for his Catholicism, and his opponent Richard Nixon did better in the South, particularly Florida and Tennessee, than he would have without a dash of anti-Catholic bigotry. Back in 1928, Al Smith's Catholicism cost the Democrats badly, although it's hard to tell by exactly how much, since Herbert Hoover was set to demolish anyone who ran against him. But in 1960, Kennedy's net national gain from his faith is believed to have been around a million votes and may well have brought him the presidency.

Now, 44 years after Kennedy--76 years after Smith--the Democratic party has nominated its third Catholic for president. And it seems safe to bet the number of votes from people like my grandmother that John Kerry will receive solely for his Catholicism should equal just about zero. The number of votes he will lose should total around the same. Never was there a less Catholic moment in American politics.

Or maybe I mean a more Catholic moment in American politics--it's all so confusing. If you're a serious-enough Catholic to be tempted to vote in sectarian solidarity, then you're also a serious-enough Catholic to dislike the pro-abortion Kerry. And if you're a zealot who votes against anything with the least odor of Catholicism, then you probably don't have much choice except Kerry, the Catholic. For where anti-Catholic bigotry in 1960 came mainly from the Evangelical right, it comes overwhelmingly in 2004 from the pro-abortion left--who certainly aren't going to vote for Bush.

Kerry's incapacity to excite Catholic voters with his Catholicism was captured perfectly in the tirade about religion and politics with which he began Holy Week. Asked by a reporter about his Catholic opponents, Kerry replied, "Are they the same legislators who vote for the death penalty, which is in contravention of Catholic teaching? I'm not a church spokesman. I'm a legislator running for president. My oath is to uphold the Constitution of the United States in my public life. My oath privately between me and God was defined in the Catholic church by Pius XXIII and Pope Paul VI in the Vatican II, which allows for freedom of conscience for Catholics with respect to these choices, and that is exactly where I am. And it is separate. Our Constitution separates church and state, and they should be reminded of that."

The New York Times was kind enough to gloss this with the note: "Mr. Kerry apparently meant John XXIII, as there is no Pius XXIII." But it isn't just the candidate's papal fallibility that makes a Catholic cringe. There's also the tone-deafness of saying "the Vatican II" for Vatican II: Kerry's superfluous "the" is not exactly what you'd call an article of faith. In fact, Kerry's whole answer feels off, somehow--a farrago of dated and half-remembered tropes, the garbled talking points of ancient Democratic campaigns, a mishmash of 44 years' worth of answers from Catholic politicians to similar questions.

Kerry's pot-calling-the-kettle-black business about the death penalty, for instance, is a slightly confused recollection of a late-1970s claim that the "Seamless Garment of Life" required Catholics to vote for Democrats--since the left was wrong only about abortion, while the right was wrong about all the other key pro-life issues of the time: capital punishment, welfare reform, support for Latin American Marxists, and so on.