Good Intentions

A History of Catholic Voters' Road from Roe to Trump

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Steven P. Millies
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , May
     2018.
     296 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780814644676.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Steven P. Millies begins this book with the seemingly remarkable fact that a slight majority of US Catholics voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election of 2016, despite the latter’s lack of experience, questionable moral character, and political stances motivated by xenophobia and religious bigotry. In this skillful work, Millies traces over forty years of political engagement by US Catholics to help explain their contemporary voting patterns and political alignment. 

Millies’s narrative focuses on the galvanizing role the issue of abortion has had for American Catholics. The central theme of the book is that just as Catholics in the United States were leaving behind the subculture or “ghetto” of their immigrant forebears and were called to a new form of engagement with the world by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the nationwide legalization of abortion by the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973 created a significant barrier to Catholics feeling at home in American political culture. Catholics faced a choice between taking an increasingly countercultural stance toward American political life or accommodating themselves to legal abortion. Here Millies runs over well-trodden ground, and ably summarizes the role of characters well-known to students of US Catholicism such as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Mario Cuomo, Cardinal John O’Connor, and John Kerry. 

Millies’s book stands out from other treatments of US Catholic politics in several respects, however. For one, in the second chapter Millies argues that the 1976 presidential election, the first after the Roe decision, was a pivotal moment in the development of the Catholic Church’s relationship to US politics. That year, the executive committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, including its general secretary James Rausch, and Joseph Bernardin, Rausch’s predecessor as general secretary and the Archbishop of Cincinnati, met with the two presidential candidates: Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter and Republican President Gerald Ford. The bishops took a confrontational approach on the abortion issue with Carter, despite their common ground on a host of other issues, and walked away “disappointed” by the meeting. After a White House meeting with Ford, however, the bishops claimed to be “encouraged” by Ford’s stance on abortion. Despite their intentions, the bishops had given the appearance of partisanship, and the meetings exemplified the dilemma faced by the bishops in the decades to come: how to remain nonpartisan without ignoring the seriousness of the abortion issue.

Millies is also insightful in his treatment of how the revelations of widespread allegations of sexual abuse against Catholic clergy in 2002 affected the bishops’ political engagement in the years that followed. In chapter 5, Millies explains how in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, a number of bishops, most notably Charles Chaput in Denver (and later Philadelphia) and Raymond Burke in St. Louis, attempted to address the church’s waning credibility not by seeking internal reforms of the structures that had enabled abuse and its cover up, but rather by means of a more confrontational political advocacy on “culture war” issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. For example, state Catholic conferences took a more active role in lobbying state governments on a number of issues in the 2000s. Millies also points to the increasing political advocacy of the Knights of Columbus under Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, elected in 2000, as an example of this increasingly partisan stance among Catholics. Millies persuasively argues that this “culture war Catholicism” not only failed to repair the credibility of the church, but also deepened the polarization and partisanship within the church. It contributed to a sense of alienation and resentment toward a seemingly hostile culture among like-minded Catholics that helped pave the way for Catholic support of the resentment-based politics of Donald Trump in 2016.

The subtitle of Millies’s book—A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump—is somewhat misleading: the book does not take a comprehensive look at Catholic electoral politics in the years after Roe, and it addresses a number of other topics that contribute to the overall narrative but are only tangentially related to Catholic voting patterns. For example, in chapter 4, Millies engages in an extended discussion of originalist judicial philosophy and its role in abortion jurisprudence. He points out that originalism’s focus on the unchanging meaning of the text of the Constitution has a certain appeal to conservative Catholics such as Robert Bork, one of the first expounders of originalism, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts. In the same chapter, Millies discusses Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, on “the Gospel of Life,” and its influence on American Catholic attitudes toward abortion. Likewise, the book focuses almost exclusively on abortion as the central issue of US Catholic electoral politics, to the neglect of other important issues such as the economy or immigration. Although Millies is certainly right that the abortion issue has had an unparalleled impact on the polarization of US Catholics, it would be helpful to also examine how Catholics have increasingly diverged on the issues of economic justice raised in the US bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All. And an explanation of the appeal of Trump to Catholic voters must give some account of why so many Catholics set aside the church’s teachings on immigration, for example.  

Nevertheless, by concentrating on abortion, Millies provides a focused and compelling account of the political and cultural polarization of US Catholics and the increasing resentment experienced by a sizeable share of Catholics who feel besieged by a hostile culture. The book would be useful in undergraduate and graduate classes on the history of US Catholicism or on religion and politics. The book will also be of interest to anyone concerned with the role of religion, and Catholicism in particular, in US politics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven P. Millies is Associate Professor of Public Theology and Director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He studied politics at The Catholic University of America and has written widely about Catholicism and American politics. He is the author of Joseph Bernardin: Seeking Common Ground (Liturgical Press).

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