By Elise Ehrhard
The past four years have witnessed a battle between different generations of Catholics in public life Generation X Catholics have taken a very different path from Baby Boomer Catholics and those born before the boomers.
Generation X Catholics have emerged prominently in the Republican Party. Many who were mentioned this year on Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential short list were Gen X Catholics—Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Kelly Ayotte and Marco Rubio. They were given prominent spots at the Republican National Convention (Jindal could not attend because of Hurricane Isaac). They continue to elicit excitement as the “future” of the Republican Party and conservatism in general.
The Democratic party has been led by outspoken Catholics of “the silent generation” (those who preceded boomers by a few years)—Nancy Pelosi in the House and Joe Biden a heartbeat away from the presidency. Baby Boomer Catholic Kathleen Sebelius, born only six years after Nancy Pelosi, created an all-out fight with the Church through her decisions at the Department of Health and Human Services. And the candidates attracting attention in the Democratic party this season are individuals like Senate candidate Tim Kaine in Virginia, a baby boomer Catholic who was once a Jesuit missionary in Honduras.
These individuals may represent the last of an aging group because few prominent younger Catholics are emerging in Democratic party politics. In fact, if the 2010 elections were any indication, fewer and fewer successful Catholic candidates of any age group are seeking office on Democratic tickets. In 2010, 37 Roman Catholics were newly elected to Congress. Of those 37, only 3 were Democrats (all 3 were born in the 1950’s). The high number of Catholics who were elected to Congressional office that year chose to run as Republicans. Not one Generation X Catholic of that freshman class was a Democrat.
Generation X Catholics are steadfast in their defense of values that also correspond to the Church’s own positions on the dignity of life and the sanctity of traditional marriage. They place greater importance on the role of individual charity over government assistance. They have no memories of a parish community life in which the Murphy’s brought dinner over for the Dougherty family’s sick grandmother or bought a gift for the new baby in church because such a Catholic community had disappeared by the time they were born. As one parish priest I know put it, charity as an act of love had largely morphed into “an act of mere administration.” They see the government’s role as too often replacing the community’s.
Many of the most prominent and powerful boomer and pre-boomer Catholics in public life openly advocate for issues that the Church considers “intrinsically evil” while arguing that their “social justice” positions make them Catholics in good standing. Yet their economic positions are areas which Church teaching leaves open for debate among Catholics of good conscience. With the leadership of Kathleen Sebelius, these generations of Catholics have now forced the American Church into a position where it must litigate with the U.S. government in order to win back its right to practice its faith freely.
For Catholic politicians of the boomer generation, John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to Protestant ministers in Houston was a moment over which they look back with pride. For churchgoing Catholics of Generation X, Kennedy’s apologia was an albatross around our necks. We came of age just as the most controversial and defining human rights issue in the U.S. became abortion. If we spoke up or debated on it with an opinion that happened to dovetail with the same position of the Church, even if our arguments were based on reason alone, we were aggressively told that we had no right to publicly express our opinion on the matter under the old adage of “imposing our morality.”
Catholics on college campuses in the late 1980’s and 90’s who entered into discussions in that dominantly left culture routinely found that opposing students or professors merely chastised their religion rather than addressed the subjects they wished to debate. We were silenced on the basis of our religion alone.
Those who continued into public life after such trials by fire did so with spines of steel. There will be no speeches arguing for “absolute” separation of Church and State from Catholic public figures of the new generation. This is not because Kennedy forged any path for them that left them freer to be a Catholic elected official (his long-term legacy may have made the way even harder), but because Catholics of Generation X were too bullied by the cultural left during the critical formative years of their political and social thought to cater to the left’s fears of their religion.
In many ways, the Democratic party left young committed Catholics who dreamed of a political future little choice after 1992. In that year, the Democratic party refused to allow pro-life Catholic Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania the opportunity to speak at the Democratic Convention even though he was a successful and powerful Democratic leader of a populous swing state. Most voters watching the convention would not have noticed this moment, but to a politically engaged pro-life Catholic still considering future party affiliation the message was clear: “You have no future with us. Not only will you not rise to prominence in our party, you may not even speak.” The long-term political consequences of that moment have never been fully analyzed.
Generation X Catholic politicians, of course, do not necessarily mirror Gen X Catholic voters. Catholics in the U.S. do not vote as one bloc, being neither firmly in the Republican or Democratic camps. However, those Catholics seeking political office are clearly moving further and further into a definite camp—the Republican Party.
Should this matter to either party? Yes, because Catholics as a group tend to attain political leadership and success far beyond their minority status in the United States. (Why this is is another topic for another time.) Sufficed it to say that it is not smart political strategy to spend twenty years pushing away a large minority group with such a strong tendency to both succeed at and influence American politics.
Future generations of aspiring Catholic politicians will likely be even less disposed to the Democrats. Obamacare in 2010 caused Congressman Bart Stupak and other pro-life Democrats to compromise their principles and the HHS mandate has left even liberal Catholics praying (and suing) for reprieve. There is little chance that young committed Catholics seeking public office in the future will see the Democratic Party as a possible home.
After this upcoming election, the Democratic party has no up-and-coming talent that excites their base the way the Republicans do. Regardless of this election’s outcome, the fact is that by pushing away young Catholics and other traditional religious young people over the years, the Democrat party has ultimately pushed away future political stars.
Elise Ehrhard has written for numerous secular and Catholic publications, including The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times, The Washington Post, UPI, First Things, and Canticle.