The De-WASPing of the Power Elite: Roman Catholics in American Politics

September 7, 2017   •   By Suzanne O’Malley

In Rome We Trust

Manlio Graziano

THE SUCCINCT, RESEARCH-RICH In Rome We Trust: The Rise of Catholics in American Political Life by Manlio Graziano is an unexpected antidote to the dramas of the 2016 presidential election and a remarkable story of how one of the nation’s deepest religious prejudices was gradually overcome.

Graziano reminds us that the American colonies were born specifically as an escape from both Roman Catholicism and the Church of England. The colonies physically existed at the intersection of geography and political policy, surrounded by French and Spanish superpowers anxious to claim the colonies for themselves and their pope. Centuries of English wars and European follies in the name of kings and popes led almost every colony to ban Catholics, whom they “regarded with the same horror as Germans during World War I” and referred to as “Whores of Babylon.”

Massachusetts laws mandated capital punishment for Catholic priests who returned after being expelled (Quakers and Jews were proscribed as well). In 1680, Rhode Island had “not one Catholic in the colony,” according to The Catholic Encyclopedia. At the time of US independence, there were 200 Catholics in the entire state of New York (population 340,000); by comparison, 300 to 400 Jews lived in New York City alone. And yet, over time, the Catholic Church in the United States thrived politically, reaching a peak, Graziano argues convincingly, during the Obama administration.

More important to Graziano’s thesis is the United States’s collective amnesia regarding the phenomenon of Catholics in top political and judicial positions today. From 2005 until Justice John Paul Stevens’s retirement in 2010, a majority of Supreme Court justices of the United States were Catholic. Using Baltimore Catechism–influenced math (i.e., counting Episcopalians as Catholics), with the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, one can even claim six out of nine justices were “Catholic.”

“Particularly striking are not just the dimensions of this phenomenon,” Graziano writes, “but the fact that very few have noticed it or tried to account for it.” Simultaneously, he argues that the American Catholic Church is an increasingly powerful influence on the universal Roman Catholic Church and vice versa.

In the history of the Supreme Court, there have been only 13 Catholic justices. Of these 13, seven were appointed by the six presidents elected since Ronald Reagan, who restored official relations to the Vatican in 1984 following a 117-year suspension.

These are the appointees by president:

  • Ronald Reagan: Sandra Day O’Connor (Episcopalian), Antonin Scalia (Catholic), Anthony Kennedy (Catholic), elevation of William Rehnquist (Lutheran) to Chief Justice;

  • George H. W. Bush: Clarence Thomas (Catholic);

  • Bill Clinton: Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Jewish) and Stephen Breyer (Jewish);

  • George W. Bush: John Roberts (Catholic) and Samuel Alito (Catholic);

  • Barack Obama: Sonia Sotomayor (Catholic) and Elena Kagan (Jewish);

  • Donald Trump: Neil Gorsuch (raised Catholic, converted to the Episcopal Church)

Ronald Reagan “brought to the Republican Party the dowry of the established Catholic antiabortion network,” Graziano writes. He compelled “evangelical militants […] to abandon one of their traditional principles: anti-Catholicism” in order to succeed politically. Deleting “centuries of antipopery, Jerry Falwell, the southern evangelical unifier of the Moral Majority, went so far as to unashamedly state that John Paul II is the ‘best hope we Baptists ever had.’”

Graziano recalls French historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s surprise that American priests didn’t fill public positions and that most “seemed to remove themselves voluntarily from power, and to take a kind of professional pride in remaining apart from it.” In another anecdote, a papal visitor to the colonies found himself dismayed that Catholicism seemed to be the religion of the immigrant poor rather than the aristocracy. Graziano also illuminates the Know-Nothing Party — the last gasp of aristocratic Whig men fearful of immigrants — who, when asked for facts about their secret society, answered, “I know nothing.” Unitarian Millard Fillmore, the only Know-Nothing president, assumed office in 1850 upon the death of President Zachary Taylor.

Abraham Lincoln commented wryly on the implications of Fillmore’s assumption on the Constitution in an 1855 letter to his friend Joshua Speed:

When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

Americans justified their prejudice by pointing out that Rome sided against the United States on major issues of foreign and domestic policy. During the Civil War, the Vatican refused to favor either side. At the war’s end, the United States suspended diplomatic relations with the Vatican. But President Ulysses S. Grant had not forgotten the patriotic behavior of the majority of Catholics during the Civil War. The future dividing line would not be between the North and the South, he said in 1875, “but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.” He had no argument from Catholics, whose commitment to superior education was already well established, who put country first and religious identification second.

Between then and the turn of the 20th century, the number of US Catholics quadrupled to 12 million. The Vatican saw little difference between American democratic materialism and Soviet ideological materialism. But in 1888, Pope Leo XIII recognized the most important American trade organization of the day, Knights of Labor. Graziano calls this the first example of the Americanization of the universal Catholic Church. One third of American soldiers who fought in World War I were Catholic — far heavier representation than their presence in the general population. By 1921, papal authorities came to the realization that “US Catholics were paying a lot of the Vatican’s bills” — and not just in Rome. Today the Catholic Church is the second largest provider of social services in the United States after the federal government.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Episcopalian New Yorker, was the first chief executive to make Catholics a cornerstone of his government, appointing many to high positions. “From Roosevelt on, Catholics were a constant component of American political life,” Graziano writes. So began the “de-WASPing” of the power elite. By the early 1950s, thanks to large families and liberal immigration policies, Catholics made up about 23 percent of the American population. John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960, Graziano says, was the symbolically significant moment of Catholic integration into the nation, but not the most important one.

By the turn of the 21st century, something remarkable had happened. “John Kennedy went from Washington down to Texas to assure Protestant preachers that he would not obey the Pope,” wrote Bush advisor Robert George. “In 2001, George Bush came from Texas up to Washington to assure a group of Catholic bishops that he would.” From his first term, Bush — the “compassionate conservative” — was considered by many the “second Catholic president” — “focused on matters Catholic in a way that John F. Kennedy never was,” in the words of Catholic League president Bill Donohue. Noteworthy, though, even New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman (a friend of the Kennedy clan) voted for Nixon. At the time of Kennedy’s election 25 percent of voters claimed they would never vote for a Catholic — a familiar baseline percentage of today that suggests a quarter of Americans may be permanently fixated on cultural, religious, and racial labels above everything else.

By Bush’s second term, Graziano writes, “[T]he Catholic hierarchy did everything it could to prevent the election of the Catholic John Kerry because of his well-known liberal positions on abortion and stem cell research.” And Obama, in Graziano’s opinion, won the 2008 election partly because of his fluency in “God talk” and his ability to refute the image of a secular Democratic Party. “An audaciously hope-filled Democrat like Obama is a Catholic natural,” wrote “Reagan Democrat” Douglas Kmiec in Slate.

One New World Catholic in particular is the capstone for Graziano’s “geopolitical” argument — Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis. Elected pope in 2013, his primary message to one billion Catholics is that their most important work is “inclusion.” Francis is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first from outside Europe since Syrian Pope Gregory III, who ruled in the eighth century. It took Rome two centuries to acknowledge the benefits of religious freedom and separation from the state but almost two millennia to reaffirm that “the people of God want pastors — not clergy acting like bureaucrats.” The significance of his election is not so novel as to support one of Graziano’s conclusions: that “there is no reason whatsoever why it [today’s Catholic Church] should not work in the rest of the world.”

As a Catholic counter, Graziano misses almost nothing. In the famous war room photograph of White House officials watching Navy SEALs take out Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011, he notes (citing Dario Fabbri’s article “The Roman Factor,” published in Limes), “nine are Catholic or received a Jesuit education.” In Obama’s second term, the second, third, fourth, and fifth positions in the line of succession were held by Catholics: Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House John Boehner, President pro tempore of the Senate Patrick Leahy, and Secretary of State John Kerry. In addition, Catholics comprised “more than one-third of the members of the government, all of the most important military positions, two-thirds of the Supreme Court and 38 percent of US governors.”

But beyond saying powerful Catholics exist, what is Graziano’s point? This: He effectively challenges received wisdom that the American Catholic Church is in decline and that the political religion of the United States is evangelicalism. The Catholic Church is the oldest continuous organized institution in history — with two millennia’s experience in managing and influencing power (not to mention rationalizing its dogma, finances, and sexual abuse). In contrast, evangelicalism (with its own foibles), divided into as many as 30,000 small churches, lacks the organization necessary to have a steady impact on political power — including, but not limited to, its 40-year-long goal to end abortion.

In the words of Georgetown University’s Jacques Berlinerblau, the Bible as a political document “is to clear and coherent political deliberation as sleet, fog, hail and flash floods are to highway safety.” “American Protestants,” agrees historian Gaetano Salvemini, “have their heart in the right place and their head nowhere: they do not even realize the importance of the fact that half of their diplomatic staff (Catholic or not) has passed through schools run by Jesuits.” As late as 1950, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service — President Bill Clinton’s alma mater — was the only American university offering a course for diplomats.

During 2008’s Great Recession, the United States lost its fact-based certainty that Americans will always have, in Graziano’s words, “a better life than that of all other peoples on Earth.” The bitter 2016 election brought into focus the inability of the United States to manage wars on so many fronts, and worse, neither candidate convinced an anxious electorate of a strategy for managing even some of them. But Graziano proposes that “any movement that promises a renewal of certainty has a ready market.” While he speaks of the Catholic Church, that 25 percent of Americans might think instead of the slogan “Make America Great Again” when they hear talk of “renewal.”

Graziano doesn’t proclaim, but infers, that when the oldest republic in history becomes unsure of itself and is “ineluctably” headed for decline, the oldest institution in history isn’t the worst place to look for a moral compass for “civil life.”


Suzanne O’Malley is the author of the Edgar-nominated “Are You There Alone?”: The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates and has been a lecturer in writing at Yale University. She writes a monthly column for Avenue Magazine.