The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Catholic mafia in America

Jacobs goes on (p79) to give a flavour of the Catholic political sway in the US during the 1950s:
With strength in numbers, improved schooling, and crescendoing economic power came political clout. The Catholic grip on local political machinery in some states, notably Connecticut, was nearly absolute. By 1960, twelve Catholic senators and nine-one representatives served in Congress - a representation greater than American Catholics had achieved previously, albeit one in proportion to their numbers. In terms of orientation on the left-right political spectrum, Catholic legislators ranged between two McCarthys, Eugene on the left and Joseph on the right, most tending to cluster the conservative pole. Even liberal cold war congressmen like John F Kennedy and Mike Mansfield were spirited in their hawkishness, while Senator Patrick McCarran of Nevada frequently out-McCartheyed McCarthy in his red-hunting exertions and in the Internal Security Act of 1950 that bore his name.

Some Americans were alarmed by what they perceived as political and cultural aggression by Catholics. Martin Marty, professor of history at the University of Chicago, noted with dismay the media's tendency to refer to "our" cardinal and "our" pope. Christian Century, a mainstream Protestant journal, ran an eight-part series that asked, "Can Catholicism Win America?" and concluded that, yes it could...

He continues:
...Charles Morris notes, "[b]y the 1950s, the Catholic Church was the country's dominant cultural force. No other institution could match its impact on politics, unions, movies, or even popular kitsch." Books with explicitly Catholic themes like Francis Spellman's The Foundling and Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain numbered among the biggest best-sellers of the fifties. Red Foley's song "Our Lady of Fatima" made the Hit Parade in 1950 and was recorded a dozen times throughout the remainder of the decade by artists as diverse as the Ray Charles Singers and Andy Williams. In 1959, the Catholic Press Association reported a record total of over twenty-four million subscribers to 580 Catholic newspapers in the United States. That same year, more than 150 radio stations carried "The Catholic Hour" to an estimated four million listeners. Bishop Fulton Sheen's "Life Is Worth Living" series not only captured the largest television audience of the mi-1950s, with over thirty million viewers per week, but also won every major TV award, many of them several times...hugely popular television personalities - Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, and Perry Como, to name but three - made no effort to disguise their identity as Catholics, as they might have in an earlier time; on the contrary, they spoke openly of their devotion to the Church. Depictions of Catholic priests and nuns in the movies were overwhelmingly favorable, in sharp contrast to the brutish interpretations set forth in films from the thirties like Little Caesar and Public Enemy. Significantly, the Hollywood Catholic priest of the cold war era was a virile figure, prepared to back up his principles with his fists. In the film On the Waterfront (1954), Karl Malden's Father Barry flattened a form prizefighter. After viewing this multiple Academy Award-wining movie, Marty noted, "Catholicism tends to dominate the mass media."

As in other spheres of American life, the Church's influence on foreign policy was at its zenith during the early cold war, principally owing to shifting US attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Patrick Allitt has demonstrated that while millions of Americans did an about-face in the late 1940s and early 1950s and went from admiring the Soviets as gallant allies to condemning them as no better than the Nazis, "[f]or American Catholics...zealous anti-communism was nothing new; Catholics schools had been teaching it for the best part of a century, and the wartime alliance with Stalin had not effaced it." During the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, American Catholics led the fight against US recognition of the Soviet Union. They also protested Roosevelt's closeness to the anticlerical and leftist Mexican regime of the 1930s and supported Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, viewing Franco as the champion of Spain's Catholic Church against the Moscow-backed Republicans. While Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini divided up Europe, and Japan carved out an empire on the Chinese mainland, it was common for Catholic spokesmen in the United States to express a preference for fascism over communism as the lesser of two evils. Hence at war's end, when American public opinion turned against Russia, the nation's Catholic population was already fully prepared, and American Catholics benefited from being in the vanguard of the anti-red zeitgeist.

Warmly recalling this watershed moment when national political consensus fell in line with a time-honored Catholic view, Daniel Patrick Moynihan writes, "In the era of security clearances, to be an Irish Catholic became prima facie evidence of loyalty. Harvard men were to be checked; Fordham men would do the checking." Catholics became increasingly visible in the late 1940s and 1950s in organizations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where J Edgar Hoover recruited agents who were, in the words of an FBI historian, "young, aggressive, and - not coincidentally - alumni of Catholic colleges, particularly Notre Dame. They were holy terrors."

Sez Jacobs, at least. Is his analysis representative, and not cherry-picked?

Not sure. For instance, on the change between the pre-war and Cold War movie priest, which unfortunate who has sat through Boy's Town fails to note that the Spencer Tracy character gets a pretty good angle? And Bing Crosby in Going My Way is not exactly a cipher. (Though neither resorts to physical violence, as I recall.)

And what about the unions? How did left-footers get on in the Communist-dominated CIO in its breakthrough years in the Popular Front period?

As for favouring the dictators, what part did national origin, as distinct from religion, play in this? Italians supporting Musso, Germans - plenty of whom who have been Catholics - backing Hitler as a badge of community identity?

As for the Irish, they might [1] well have viewed the UK as a likely target of Hitler's aggression, and supported him on the old ground that England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity.

  1. Pure supposition, this. Except that this dissertation seems to support the idea (I've just glanced at it).

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