The Second Catholic President: Prelude and Prospects

by Patrick Lacroix, author of John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith

Until Joe Biden’s victory last November, the United States had not elected a Catholic president since 1960. In that interval, though many Catholics aspired to hold the nation’s highest public office, only one—John Kerry in 2004—won his party’s presidential nomination. It is as though the presidency again became a political forbidden fruit for Catholics in the wake of John F. Kennedy. Though the most recent election does not have the symbolic significance of Kennedy’s triumph over Richard Nixon, pundits and scholars of religion are already debating what Biden’s breakthrough says about the current landscape of faith and politics in this country.

At first glimpse, the connection between the two Catholic presidents seems tenuous—and not merely because of the amount of time that has elapsed or because Donald Trump has been a political creature like no other. In the early 1960s, after an election campaign that pitted them against anti-Catholic sentiments as much as the Republican ticket, President Kennedy and liberal allies cast new lines of religious activism. Though this was not, at the outset, a conscious or coherent political program, its effects were undeniable: religious bigotry declined, new faith-based alliances formed, and henceforth Catholic involvement in politics would mean confronting moral issues largely absent from the debates of 1960.

Despite a popular narrative that identifies the election of 1960 as a decisive blow against religious prejudice, Kennedy’s victory did not in itself change hearts and minds about Catholics’ ability to fulfill their constitutional obligations. Only once in office did he have the opportunity to challenge certain Protestants’ preconceived notions and substantiate the pledges he made on the campaign trail, most famously in his September 1960 address to Protestant ministers in Houston.

In his first months in office, Kennedy lived up to one of those pledges by proposing federal aid to education that excluded religious schools. While incurring the ire of leading figures in the Catholic Church, Kennedy earned political capital among moderate Protestants who traditionally supported the Democrats and whose religious reservations might be overcome.

Other administration officials would later recall that Kennedy, adviser Theodore Sorensen, and their team occasionally wrote speeches that grated religious audiences. There may have been bitterness lingering from the religious battle they had waged during the election as well as a desire to move to issues of substance. When faced with unexpected foreign and domestic crises, however, Kennedy embraced the religious forces that shared his political vision.

In a little-known twist, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Catholic figures with Vatican connections facilitated communication between the White House and the Soviet Union. With Pope John XXIII and editor Norman Cousins serving as secret intermediaries, the president and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came to an understanding regarding a nuclear test ban. During the summer of 1963, the White House openly courted American Catholics, Protestants, and Jews committed to détente and enrolled their support in the Senate’s ratification of the test ban treaty.

A similar story played out in the struggle for racial justice. From the Albany, Georgia, campaign of 1962 onwards, liberal white clergy took part in the Black freedom movement in ever-rising numbers. That interfaith and interracial coalition further cohered at the National Conference on Religion and Race held in Chicago, in January 1963. Present during that four-day event was R. Sargent Shriver, an unofficial administration observer.

When Kennedy proposed concrete measures to end segregation and discrimination in February and June 1963, he borrowed from the theme of moral justice propounded at the Chicago conference. The White House invited white and Black clergymen from all parts of the nation in June; they discussed means of advancing racial justice with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and forged an alliance that might ensure the passage of the civil rights bill. By then, the president had at last spoken publicly about his Catholic beliefs. At Boston College, he stated that he shared Pope John’s vision of social justice and international peace—a progressive vision which, when put into action in 1963, announced new lines of religious debate.

The coalition of likeminded people of faith, a coalition that cut across denominational lines, quickly pushed past civil rights and organized itself against the war in Vietnam. Though Kennedy was then in repose at Arlington National Cemetery, liberals of all faiths took advantage of the declining religious animosities that the late president had helped foster; they also embraced the ideological legacy of his final year in office. These energies crystallized in the form of the Religious Left, to which an interdenominational Religious Right would quickly and vigorously respond.

Kennedy’s efforts to serve as an impartial interfaith broker had helped expose divisions within denominations. Liberal Catholics found that they could work more profitably with liberal Protestants than with more conservative members of their own church. The same happened on the other side of the political spectrum. Though conservative white Catholics and Protestants never came together in common organizations in substantial numbers, they certainly voted as one during election campaigns thanks to shared views of abortion and religious liberty. Despite Trump’s reluctance to discuss his own moral core, this de facto conservative alliance was by no means a matter of the past during the 2016 contest. There is actually little evidence that Biden’s victory in November reflected a significant shift in the landscape of faith and politics.

Like Kennedy, Biden is facing unfriendly bishops who emphasize different aspects of Catholic social teaching. Whereas the first Catholic president won 80 percent of the Catholic vote, however, the second cannot count on such a committed bloc of supporters in his own church. This reflects Democrats’ struggle to speak sincerely to people of faith on their own terms since the Carter Administration and the importance of abortion (not least as a litmus test for candidates) among Catholic voters. Biden thus faces a deeply fractured religious landscape, with Catholic Washington, D.C., as exhibit A.

From a religious standpoint, Joe Biden is an heir to John F. Kennedy not as a carbon copy, though liberal instincts have informed both presidents’ outlook. The complex interdenominational concerns that Biden inherits attest to the transformative effect of Kennedy’s thousand days in office.

It is too soon to tell whether the Religious Right finds itself at a political dead end with Donald Trump’s defeat. Nor is it certain that Biden’s sincere religious feelings and desire to reach out to people of faith will reinvigorate a sometimes-languishing Religious Left. Nevertheless, we can expect the current president to alter the lines of debate nearly as much as his Catholic forebear once did. He is uniquely positioned to dispel conservative Catholics’ fears of a Democratic Party they believe to be without a moral rudder and to lay to rest the wariness of religious activism expressed by some millennials (the “nones”).

Indeed, as an honest interfaith broker in his own right, President Biden now has the opportunity to mold the place of religion in the public square in a way that engages the hopes and concerns of a country that is every day becoming more culturally diverse and socially liberal.

Patrick Lacroix, Ph.D., is a scholar of American immigration and religious history. He has taught at the University of New Hampshire, Phillips Exeter Academy, and liberal arts colleges in eastern Canada. His research has appeared in numerous academic journals and his first scholarly book, John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith, is now available from the University Press of Kansas. Dr. Lacroix currently resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

 

The Road to the Trump Presidency

by Stephen Knott, author of The Lost Soul of the American Presidency; The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal / Opinions expressed here are entirely his own.

Donald Trump is everything critics of a populist presidency, particularly Alexander Hamilton, warned about—a demagogue who practices the “little arts of popularity” for purposes of firing up his base, a man lacking the attributes of a magnanimous soul, a purveyor of conspiracy theories, and a president incapable of distinguishing between himself and the office he temporarily holds.

Yet Hamilton’s fear of a demagogic, populist presidency, was realized long before the election of Donald Trump. In fact, the seeds were first planted by Thomas Jefferson in his “Revolution of 1800.” The Sage of Monticello launched the presidency on a populist course that, in the long run, undermined the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. While many members of the founding generation were worried that a demagogue manipulating public passions would destroy the republic, Jefferson argued that public opinion served as the “best criterion of what is best,” and that enlisting and engaging that opinion would “give strength to the government.” As the nation’s only nationally elected figure, Jefferson’s executive was rooted in popular support and thus uniquely situated to serve as a spokesman for and implementer of the majority’s wishes.

Jefferson turned his rival Alexander Hamilton’s arguments on their head, arguing that popular opinion conferred constitutional legitimacy. Jefferson made this abundantly clear in a letter he wrote to James Madison in 1787: “after all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority should always prevail.” In essence, the majority would govern, not the Constitution.

The “Revolution of 1800” paved the way for the populist presidency of Andrew Jackson who held that the fundamental principle of the American government was majority rule. While the American framers believed in government by consent, they did not believe in government by the majority, believing instead in a system of representation and other “filtering” elements including judicial review, indirect election of Senators, and the Electoral College. Jackson believed that checks on majority rule, including the Electoral College, represented a perversion of the principle that “as few impediments as possible should exist to the free operation of the public will.”

As all demagogues are inclined to do, Andrew Jackson played upon fears to mobilize his base. No one understood this better than John Quincy Adams, a target of Jackson’s wrath and a champion of the rights of other frequent targets of those resentments, including abolitionists, free Blacks, and Native Americans. Unpopular minorities bear the brunt of the populist presidency, and Adams was one of the last of a dying breed who understood the threat this presented to the American body politic. According to Adams, Jackson was “a man governed by passion rather than reason, a demagogue.”

With Jackson’s election to the presidency, and with the wider success of his movement at the state and local level, the American republic moved from a system designed to check majority tyranny to one where an unfettered majority governed, using its power at the state level to disenfranchise an unpopular minority (free blacks) and to press for the expansion of slavery, and leveraging its powers at the state and the federal levels to remove a different but equally unpopular minority from its midst, Native Americans.

The coalition Jackson assembled was, at bottom, a cauldron of boiling partisan, racial, and class resentments, and in Jackson’s case, all of those elements, plus decades of personal resentments thrown into the mix. Thirty years later, Jackson’s fellow Tennessean, Andrew Johnson, who considered Jackson his beau ideal of a president, stirred the same populist pot on his path to power, rising to prominence as the nineteenth century’s version of Donald Trump.

The refounded presidency of Jefferson and Jackson was embraced by many twentieth century progressives. While Jefferson and Jackson did not believe in an activist federal government, these progressives did. But having unmoored the presidency from the Constitution and grounded it in public opinion, it was a small step for Jefferson’s and Jackson’s heirs to claim that the president spoke for the majority and was uniquely situated to view the whole, and that the people demanded a federal government that could be as big as it wanted to be, led by a president who was as big a man as he wanted to be.

Progressive politicians, Franklin Roosevelt in particular, along with historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Henry Steele Commager, considered Andrew Jackson to be a precursor to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The age of Jackson and the age of Roosevelt may have been a century apart, but both men fought the elites of their day and considered themselves the tribune of the people. As with Jackson, FDR was a genius at firing up his base by labeling his opponents as un-American evil doers.

Sadly, Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of those who sought a more responsive, unrestrained presidency, rooted in public opinion. This refounded presidency placed the office on a dangerous and unsustainable path, a path of heightened expectations that encourages a contemptuous view of checks and balances. It also diminished the important unifying role the president was expected to play as head of state, forcing him to become a party leader and policy formulator—in short, a perpetual partisan lightning rod. All of this has contributed to an erosion of respect for the office.

The United States would be well served to return to the constitutional presidency envisioned by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They designed a presidency of “sober expectations,” one that did not pander to or manipulate the public, one that was averse to the notion that it was the president’s job to provide “visionary leadership,” and one that was less inclined to implement the majority will at the expense of political, racial, and economic minorities.

The prospects for a renewal of the office are slim, but not impossible. A recovery of the constitutional presidency, one respectful of the rule of law and appreciative of the role of the president as head of state, rather than full-time rabble rouser, is within our reach. It would require, however, a renewed appreciation for the limits of the office and the limits of politics, along with an understanding that history is littered with examples of leaders who, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “overturned the liberties of republics.” These demagogues began their careers “by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Stephen F. Knott (@publius57) is professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. His many books include Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth and Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, both from Kansas, and Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency.

Nixon, Trump and Courting the Silent Majority

by Seth Blumenthal, author of Children of the Silent Majority;Young Voters and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1968-1980

Listening to White House aides such as Kevin Phillips, who urged a shift to the right on social and race issues during the 1970 midterm campaign season, President Richard Nixon attempted to lure Democrats into the Republican fold with rhetoric that channeled the frustrations and concerns shared by the voters he labeled the “great silent majority.” Just days before the election, in the wake of a raucous and violent demonstration against his speech in San Jose, California, earlier that week, Nixon pleased one Arizona crowd with his trademark tough talk. “The time has come to draw the line,” Nixon fumed against “the haters.” “The time has come for the great silent majority of Americans of all ages, of every political persuasion, to stand up and be counted against appeasement of the rock throwers and the obscenity shouters in America.” However, rather than gain seats in Congress, Nixon watched several coveted campaigns fail to provide the mandate he anticipated, instead puncturing his claim to a new majority. In retrospect, even Nixon admitted the approach went “too far overboard.” In the weeks following the 1970 election, Nixon’s staff scrambled to explain the poor showing and the shortcomings of his “law and order” appeal to America.

Ever since Nixon coined the term “silent majority” in his 1969 address concerning the Vietnam War, commentators became obsessed with debating this voting bloc’s contours and its character throughout his presidency and beyond. Rick Perlstein defined the silent majority’s amorphous impetus as follows: “The silent majority is always going to be a state of mind. It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling of dispossession. And that feeling of dispossession can come about most dramatically in times when things seem to be changing, when all that’s solid melts into air.” This vague sentiment still resonates today as President Donald Trump and his voters continually call themselves the “silent majority.” Comparing Nixon’s definition—or definitions—of the silent majority and Donald Trump’s coalition reveals similarly dubious patterns in conservatives’ claim to a majority and their explanation for this majority’s silence. Meanwhile, Cheri Bustos, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chair of Heartland Engagement who guided 2018 candidates in twelve states, attempted to steer the silent majority in a different direction: “If you look throughout the heartland,” Bustos hoped, “there’s a Silent Majority who just wants normalcy, just wants to see that people are going to go out to Washington and fight for them in a civil way and get something done.” Unfortunately for Bustos and other Democrats borrowing this conservative phrase, even when defined in moderate terms by its civility the history behind this mythologized voting bloc demonstrates the crucial role that the concept of a silent majority plays in backlash politics.

Despite the 1970 campaign’s failures, Kevin Phillips continued to paint a backlash image of Nixon’s silent majority: “Young policemen, truck drivers, and steelworkers,” who Nixon sought to include in his constituency along with Sunbelt suburban voters, “lean towards a kind of hippie stomping, anti-intellectual, social ‘conservatism’ in the [Governor] George Wallace vein.” The secret to politics, Phillips once said, “is knowing who hates who.” In Phillips’s attempt to map a political majority, this quote meant targeting young leftists but also opposing civil rights legislation and channeling racist resentments to win white voters from the Democratic Party. As he claimed, “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that.” Phillips’s view of the silent majority connected this voting bloc to Wallace, a firebrand segregationist, and garnered important conservative adherents within the White House such as Tom Huston and Pat Buchanan. Not all of Nixon’s aides agreed with Phillips’s assessment.

Capturing the perspective of the moderate, middle-of-the-road advisers who suggested Nixon temper his approach to court the silent majority, a revealing memo from his White House aide, Daniel P. Moynihan, offers a lens into this internal discussion. Moynihan, a Democrat in a Republican administration, understood the potential of backlash politics and encouraged Nixon’s attacks on countercultural permissiveness, but he added that Nixon should balance this tough approach with a more civil and positive embrace of patriotism and the United States’ political and cultural traditions. While Moynihan also explored a populist vision of a resentful silent majority, he maintained that these voters required finesse and demanded an intellectual defense of their traditions in the face of the 1960s challenges from the Left. Moynihan explained, “The silent majority is silent because it has nothing to say,” as he believed these voters begged Nixon for a convincing counter to the robust debate raging between the political extremes on the Right and the eft.

The real problem, according Moynihan, was that the majority of Americans had no response to the challenges to capitalism and “American virtues.” As he advised Nixon, “The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near to silencing the representatives of traditional America.” Citing the “fourth rate minds around the administration” and worrying that the “only persons with vigor in their argument are the real right wingers,” Moynihan complained about the dearth of outspoken, effective communicators of conservative virtues that he defined as “moderation, decency, common sense, restrained ambition, attainable goals, comprehensible policies.” “You may have more troops,” Moynihan conceded, “but the other side has more firepower. Infinitely more.” Thus, Moynihan hoped that if Nixon and his administration could give these voters a moderate voice to marginalize the extremists across the political spectrum, it would provide the silent majority with the rhetoric and confidence to stand up for the middle and prove they outnumbered the “authoritarian left.” Hardly the “hippie stomping, anti-intellectual, social ‘conservatism’” Phillips advocated.

Furthering his contrast to Phillips’s backlash thesis, Moynihan warned Nixon about the dangers of wading into student politics. Especially after the Ohio Army National Guard’s traumatic shooting of four unarmed students during a Kent State demonstration in 1970, Moynihan feared that “the general impression is that we have been running against the kids.” After all, William Scranton’s Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest reported that Kent State’s student body “are predominantly the children of middle class families, both white collar and blue collar, and in the main go on to careers as teachers and as middle-level management in industry.” These students belied the notion that all protesters were fringe radicals, or a minority. Still, even though Moynihan urged caution when confronting the “sons and daughters of the silent majority,” he demonstrated the racial limits of moderation when he supported Nixon’s targeting of “black militants” and “racial extremists.” Despite Moynihan’s distinctions, conservatives often conflated black and white protesters to separate both groups from the majority.

While Nixon and his advisers debated the silent majority’s significance, conservative activists on campus targeted antiwar voices and dismissed them as a minority. One conservative group at the University of Tennessee distributed a flyer on campus during the (predominantly white) student strike following Kent State, asking, “Who helped these long haired, unintelligent, dark skinned, poorly dressed . . . protesters?” The term “silent majority” always carried racial connotations because the word “majority” claimed political power and appealed to white fears that the minority gained preferential treatment under LBJ’s Great Society and urban programs to combat poverty. As Perlstein points out, “To say majority is to say minority, and everyone knows who minorities are. They are people in America who are not white.”

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

The term “silent majority” continues to prove resilient and influential because it motivates a conservative voting constituency’s political identity in contrast to the Left. As one Trump supporter complained, “The reason why we’re silent is because we’re not allowed to talk.” He continued, “My favorite thing about Trump is that he wants to get rid of political correctness.” Though similar to Moynihan’s claim that that the silent majority lacked a voice, Trump’s version of this coalition leans more toward the anti-intellectual, vitriolic strain Phillips identified and blames the Left more directly for intentionally muzzling conservative perspectives. Even this more recent claim that the silent majority has been silenced is rooted in racial politics. In fact, Trump’s rhetoric reveals the exact expressions of patriotism and white identity politics that his voters feel unable to discuss in what Moynihan called “terms that will win a respectful hearing.” For example, due to this revived sense of “dispossession,” loyal Trump supporters believe the president’s racist appeals work with the predominantly white silent majority today. Greg Gallas, a county GOP chairman in Minnesota, recently bragged that Trump’s targeted criticism of Representative Ilhan Omar is “awakening a ‘silent majority’ of supporters.” As he gushed, “I love it. It’s called winning.”

From its inception, the silent majority’s racial boundaries—who it included and their interests—have been shaped and debated by political experts. Van Jones, a liberal commentator on CNN, recently challenged the contemporary vision of a backlash-driven silent majority when after Trump’s rally in North Carolina where supporters chanted “send her back” he claimed, “I think there’s a silent majority of people who have been getting increasingly uncomfortable with what Trump is up to.” However, Jones and other Democrats looking to borrow the phrase also espouse the same emphasis on civil moderation that Moynihan exaggerated, and they overlook the crucial role race, resentment, and alienation played in framing the silent majority. Thus, while these voters aren’t always silent nor a majority, they always stand in opposition to a minority that is perceived as disproportionately influential and growing, no matter the reality. Certainly, considering its history, asking the silent majority to resist Trump’s politics seems a quixotic exercise.

Seth Blumenthal is a senior lecturer at Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences. His work has appeared in the Journal of Policy History and The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture.

 

[1] Richard Nixon, “Remarks at Phoenix, Arizona,” October 31, 1970, John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-phoenix-arizona.
[1] Kevin Phillips, “‘Kidlash’ a Possibility: Important Changes Could Come from Vote of 18–21 Year Olds,” Post-Crescent, May 2, 1971.
[1] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Memorandum for the President,” November 13, 1970, Nixon Library, https://www.nixonlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/virtuallibrary/documents/jun09/111370_Moynihan.pdf.
[1] President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, “The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest” (Washington, DC: US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Institute of Education, 1970), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED083899.pdf.
[1] Flyer, University of Tennessee Special Collections, Folder: Student Unrest 1970s.
[1] Sam Sanders, “Trump Champions the ‘Silent Majority,’ but What Does That Mean in 2016?” NPR, January 22, 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/01/22/463884201/trump-champions-the-silent-majority-but-what-does-that-mean-in-2016.
[1] Judy Keen, “Trump-Omar Sparring Influences the Fight for Minnesota in 2020,” StarTribune, July 29, 2019, http://www.startribune.com/trump-s-feud-with-rep-ilhan-omar-influences-the-fight-for-minnesota-in-2020/513297212/.
[1] Ian Schwartz, “Van Jones: Silent Majority of People Uncomfortable with What Trump Is Up To,” RealClear Politics, July 19, 2019, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/07/19/van_jones_silent_majority_of_people_uncomfortable_with_what_trump_is_up_to.html.