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Why American Politics Marginalizes Catholic Voters

SEARCHING FOR A  CATHOLIC THEO-POLITICAL CONSENSUS

By Kenneth Colston | October 2018
Kenneth Colston, a retired teacher of languages, resides in St. Louis. His articles on literature have appeared recently in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Saint Austin Review, The New Criterion, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Crisis, and First Things.

Catholics are outliers in American politics. Michael Doran’s public lecture “The Theology of Foreign Policy” (reprinted in First Things, May) provides a rich demonstration of this thesis. Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, attributes the enduring divide in American foreign policy not to animosity between Democrats and Republicans but to a 19th-century schism in Protestantism between modernists and fundamentalists. He names these two politicized Protestant camps the Jacksonians and the Progressives. Although he passes over it, Doran’s binary might also explain the division in domestic politics. Most arguments, Chesterton is claimed to have said, are ultimately theological, and this one rightly leaves Catholics out of the mix.

Both sides in the American Protestant schism, according to Doran, are missionary democrats. The Jacksonians (Andrew Jackson, Herman Melville, William Jennings Bryan, Harry Truman, et al.), it is well known, favored the common man against the elites. Less well known is that they drew their political bias from dispensational premillennialism, the belief in an imminent Second Coming that will, in the words of a manifesto published in Prophetic Times, a 19th-century, Philadelphia-based premillennialist publication, “avenge [Christ’s] elect,” “revolutionize” all “systems in Church and State” (if not destroy them), and spare only those “properly awake to these truths” (vol. 4; 1866). Consequently, Doran observes, the Jacksonian persuasion is a “sleeping volcano” in politics. The “guardians of freedom” are quiet (i.e., isolationist and nativist) when liberty seems safe, but stirred to full-throated, unilateral war when righteously indignant — enough to, say, drop nuclear bombs on city centers to rid the world of tyranny.

The theo-politics of the Progressives (the Roosevelts and Rockefellers, Woodrow Wilson, et al.), by contrast, builds on a postmillennial eschatology. Spreading the Gospel will produce a period of peace and prosperity by virtue of centralized, top-down initiatives in which the elect direct the common man through industrialization, education, social justice, multilateral coercion, and do-gooding — e.g., the war to end all wars, the United Nations and Peace Corps, the universal brotherhood of man, and the right to abortion-on-demand everywhere on earth.

This schism between Jacksonian and Progressive Protestants accounts for both unexpected conflations and surprising polarities. Both groups are militaristic missionaries — one to keep liberty alive, the other to forge universal brotherhood. The dispensational premillennialists, however, eventually became committed Zionists, while the postmillennial Progressives sought CIA-backed friendship with Israel’s enemies. Perhaps most crucially, these two camps of missionary democrats are bitterly opposed in their extreme views of human nature — utterly depraved versus ultimately perfectible, with original sin either destroying everything or doing nothing. Those extremes squeeze out the Catholic via media in both theology and politics.

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