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What They Wished For

American Catholics and American Presidents, 1960-2004


Lawrence J. McAndrews


Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014

Hardcover. xiv+503 pages. ISBN 978-0820346830. $49.95


Reviewed by Jasper M. Trautsch

Universität Regensburg



How Catholic Have American Presidents Become?


In What They Wished For : American Catholics and American Presidents, 1960-2004, Lawrence J. McAndrews, Professor of History at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, analyzes the influence of the American Catholics’ leadership on presidential policies and politics between 1960 and 2004, reconstructing the profound changes in American Catholics’ political role between the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy as U.S. president and the electoral defeat of Catholic John Kerry by George W. Bush eleven years ago.

By 1960, Catholics who had faced continuous discrimination by the Protestant majority throughout American history had finally reached a “rough economic parity” with Protestants and had gained access to “virtually every aspect of American life […] except the White House,” as McAndrews notes at the beginning of his study [3]. Despite their social, cultural, and economic integration in mainstream American society in the first half of the 20th century, the idea of a Catholic at the helm of the state still raised controversy at mid-century. Particularly in the South, there was widespread skepticism if not outright hostility to the idea of a Catholic president. Conversely, Kennedy received strong support from American Catholics (three quarters of all Catholics voted for him) primarily for his religious affiliation. Forty-four years later, Kerry, by contrast, was unable to gather the majority of Catholics behind him. By the 21st century the kind of anti-Catholicism still prevalent in the 1960s had all but vanished, and Catholics had become so influential and an accepted political lobby group with privileged access to Protestant presidents of both parties that they no longer had to vote for one of their own if he did not share Catholics’ political goals. To trace these striking changes in the relationship between Catholics and Presidents within this time span is the goal of What They Wished For.

The book is divided into nine chapters: each of them devoted to one presidency, starting with the Kennedy and ending with the George W. Bush administration, and subdivided into a discussion of three issues on which the U.S. Catholic hierarchy sought to influence the presidents: 1.) war and peace; 2.) social justice; 3.) life and death. With regards to the first issue, the thinking of the Catholic Church’s leadership was shaped by the “just-war theory” as developed by St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas. American Catholics’ perspective on social justice was guided by the Catholic social teaching, which suggested moderate policies that avoided extremes of the Left and the Right and that sought to correct market excesses and stark income inequalities. Finally, as to matters pertaining to life and death, the Catholic hierarchy has rejected artificial birth control in general and abortion in particular.

McAndrews provides a detailed and meticulously researched analysis of how the leadership of the Catholic Church in the U.S. – through taking part in the public debates, lobbying government officials, and mobilizing their members – tried to influence White House policies. His book is based on extensive archival research in both Catholic archives (such as the United States Council of Catholic Bishops and various archdiocesan archives) and political archives (such as the National Archives and the relevant Presidential Libraries), but he also made use of historical polling data and newspapers. Scholars of 20th-century American politics, the U.S. presidency, and America’s religious life will, therefore, want to read this comprehensive and yet easy-to-access survey of the relations between American Catholics bishops and the White House, which contains an impressive amount of interesting insights into the U.S. Catholic hierarchy’s political activities and their discussions with presidents and their advisers.

McAndrews also comes to very balanced and convincing conclusions. On the one hand, he can show that Catholics became an influential voice in presidential politics: backing Kennedy’s attempts to initiate nuclear arms control agreements and his and Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights legislation; supporting Richard Nixon in his welfare reform policies; convincing Gerald Ford to resettle South Vietnamese refugees; contributing to Jimmy Carter’s decision not to federally fund abortions and to Ronald Reagan’s public “pro-life” stance; encouraging George Bush to spend more federal money on urban redevelopment; urging Bill Clinton to intervene in the Balkan Wars and send peacekeepers to Bosnia and Kosovo in order to prevent a possible genocide; and successfully soliciting George W. Bush’s signing of the “partial-birth” abortion ban.

On the other hand, McAndrews readily admits that the wishes of the Catholic hierarchy were often ignored, that their efforts were frequently frustrated, and that they therefore did not always get “what they wished for.” Kennedy and Johnson disregarded the Catholic Church’s leadership when federally funding artificial contraception. Nixon prolonged the Vietnam War and Ford ignored the abortion issue – much to the chagrin of the Catholic bishops. Carter discontinued arms reductions talks and Reagan – despite his open “pro-life” stance – avoided action on the abortion issue, disappointing many Catholics’ hopes. The elder Bush invaded Iraq despite the Pope’s opposition, and Clinton vetoed the “partial-birth” abortion ban that Congress had passed with the Catholic hierarchy’s support. The younger Bush then waged another war with Iraq defying the Vatican.

Yet, after reading this 500-page, almost encyclopedia-like work, one is bound to feel a certain disappointment, since the book does not make larger claims about the relation between organized religion and American politics in the second half of the 20th century and since McAndrews shies away from taking strong interpretive positions of his own. As a result, the relevance of the subject matter at hand for the course of recent American history does not become readily apparent. Moreover, the general contours of his story are not really surprising: the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has been relatively liberal in terms of civil rights, welfare, and foreign policy, but strongly conservative in terms of social issues such as abortion. While What They Wished For will be a valuable resource and reliable reference work for specialists, it will, therefore, be less rewarding and engaging for the more generally interested readers.


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