In the past two decades, the American religious Right has become increasingly Catholic. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. Literally, Catholic writers have emerged as intellectual leaders of the religious right in universities, the punditocracy, the press, and the courts, promoting an agenda that at its most theoretical involves a reclamation of the natural law tradition of Thomas Aquinas and at its most practical involves appeals to the kind of common-sense, "everybody knows," or "it just is" arguments that have characterized opposition to same-sex marriage. There is nothing new about Catholic conservative intellectuals -- think John Neuhaus, William F. Buckley, Jr. What is new is the prominence that these Catholic thinkers and leaders have come to have within the domains of American politics that are dominated by evangelical Protestants. Catholic intellectuals have become to the American Right what Jewish intellectuals once were to the American Left. In the academy, on the Court, Catholic intellectuals provide the theoretical discourse that shapes conservative arguments across a whole range of issues. Often these arguments have identifiable Thomistic or Jesuitical sources, but most of the time they enter the mainstream of political dialogue as simply "conservative."
Meanwhile, in the realm of actual politics, Catholic politicians have emerged as leading figures in the religious conservative movement. Again, there is nothing new about Catholic political leaders nor Catholic politicians, although from Al Smith through John Kennedy they were more often Democrats than Republicans (Pat Buchanan is an exception). What is new is the ability of self-identified Catholic politicians to attract broad support from the among the evangelical Protestant religious right.
Rick Santorum is a case in point. Santorum's is a specifically Catholic form of faith. The recent flap over contraception is only an example of a much deeper phenomenon. As observers have noted, he talks frequently about natural law, but rarely quotes the Bible directly -- his arguments draw on a theologically informed view of the nature of the world, not a personal relationship with the text.
Indeed, in the past Santorum has been quite forthright about the fact that he does not look to the Bible for guidance, he relies quite properly on the guidance of the Church. There is obviously nothing wrong with that ... but it sits very curiously with traditional Evangelical Protestant attitudes.
It is important not to overstate the significance of Santorum's success. For all Santorum's recent ascendancy, here is the breakdown of actual Republican votes cast thus far: Romney, 1,121,685; Gingrich, 838,825; Santorum, 431,926; Paul, 307,975. The count of awarded delegates produces a somewhat different result: Romney, 99; Santorum, 47; Gingrich, 32; Paul, 20 (The difference among those numbers reflects what political scientists call "malapportionment.") But two facts remain: one, with 1,144 delegates required for the nomination this thing is nowhere close to a resolution, and will not be even after Arizona, Michigan, and Super Tuesday; and, two, thus far in the Republican primary campaign, a majority of the votes cast have been for Catholic candidates. It's not just Santorum; before him it was Gingrich, after all. At the national level, Catholic politicians have emerged as leading figures in the GOP... and evangelical Protestants are flocking to follow their lead. Why?
The answer is not that evangelicals have become any less Protestant. In a 2011 American Values Survey, 93% of white evangelicals say it is important for a candidate to have strong religious beliefs, versus 69% for Catholics saying the same thing. And 36% of white evangelical voters said they would be uncomfortable voting for a candidate who had strong religious beliefs that were different from their own, up from 29% in 2010, a change that may reflect the effects of a prominent Mormon candidate in the mix. In other words, evangelical voters care a great deal that a candidate's religion accord with their own... and they are supporting Catholic candidates. So what is going on?
To understand what is going on, we need to move from the role of Catholic individuals to a broader, more metaphorical idea of a Catholic style of political reasoning. "Catholic" in this exercise means responding to leadership; focusing on outcomes (think "doctrine of works"); and a Manichean view of the world in which the Church -- as opposed to mere churches -- stands as a bulwark against equally great opposing forces, so that outside the Church there can be only chaos. In this sense a Catholic Republican voter would be someone looking for a commanding general to lead Christian soldiers on a crusade, would care about a candidate's policies rather than his soul, and respond to a call to view the Republican Party as the last bastion of civilisation in a howling wilderness. Extending the metaphor, a "Protestant" conservative should reject the idea of leaders in favour of grass roots communalism; local self-direction in the congregationalist model; care about character and personal values more than specific stances or doctrines; and see the world as a mass of sinners who are to be judged individually by the quality of their soul rather than by their enlistment in one party or the other.
In this metaphorical sense, the "Catholic" political style is strongest among evangelical Protestant voters, not actual Catholics. The eagerness of Catholic bishops to jump into a fight over contraception, for example, does not reflect that attitudes of their parishoners, but it gets strong support from evangelicals. Similarly, in one recent poll more than two-thirds of Catholic voters supported some sort of legal recognition of gay couples' relationships, with 44% favoring same-sex marriage; in very sharp contrast, an outright majority of evangelical voters said there should be no legal recognition of a same-sex relationship.
In political terms, the evangelical Protestant Right has become Catholicized. They do not see Catholicism as a religion very different from their own because it leads to the same positions on the battlefield, call it Fortress GOP. It is a political worldview that is singularly well suited to negative politics. Who cares whether your guy is actually a bit of a nut-case or has some sleaze in his history if he will defeat the forces of darkness? Liberals tolerate venality in their candidates if they believe they will do good; "Catholic" conservatives tolerate venality if they believe their candidates will defeat evil. (Ironically, all of this has moved the American religious Right in the direction of becoming more and more like a traditional European right-wing political movement, rather than a populist movement in the American Jacksonian tradition.)
In this metaphorical sense, the one person who did the most to push the Catholicization of conservative politics was Newt Gingrich back in the 1990s, long before his personal religious conversion. The most obvious illustration was the infamous GOPAC memorandum entitled "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control" that instructed Republican candidates to describe their Democratic opponents using words like "destructive," "sick," "pathetic," "they/them," "betray" and " traitors" (relying on the research of the almost incomprehensibly amoral Frank Lutz). That kind of rhetoric and the scorched earth, anyone-who-is-not-with-must-be-destroyed tactics that go with it has been the defining style of Gingrich's brand of politics ever since. And who Gingrich's man in the Senate in those heady days of unabashed viciousness? Rick Santorum. And not just as an ally -- Santorum was Gingrich's hatchet man, the one who did the "dirty work" as one Republican congressman put it. Or in the words of a Republican staffer at the time, "[Santorum] is a Stepford wife to Gingrich... If you took the key out of his back, I'm not sure his lips would keep moving." (These quotations appear in a 1995 Philadelphia Magazine article -- you can find a link to the pdf file here
Can this carry Santorum to the nomination? Probably not. There are already signs that Santorum is slipping, as the extremity of his religious dogmatism becomes evident to voters, which may eventually force evangelicals to recognize the differences between the tenets of his faith and their own. The fit with Tea Party conservatives is even more tenuous, as that movement is an expression of a deeply "Protestant" brand of politics that sit uneasily with the rhetoric and worldview of "Catholic" conservatism. And Santorum has yet to be called out for his role in the 1990s; if people really want to vote for Gingrich's old pet attack dog, why not simply vote for the owner? With time, Romney's claim to be the only electable candidate (and adult) in the field may regain its traction. Meanwhile, Gingrich is looking ahead to the South, and possibly even as far as Texas and California. It has been a campaign of suddenly arising candidates who flamed out just as quickly, and Santorum shows signs of being the latest in that line -- as I said, even after Super Tuesday there is going to be a long way to go.
There is the potential for deep divisions appearing in the GOP along an axis of "Protestant" versus "Catholic" religious conservatism. But regardless of what happens next, the rise of first Gingrich and now Santorum as the candidate of choice for the Religious Right is a profound sign of how Catholic the American religious right has become.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more