A lot has happened in American politics since late February 2020, when D.G. Hart wrote the preface for American Catholic:The Politics of Faith During the Cold War: a pandemic, economic collapse, nationwide racial protests, and a riot in the United States Capitol. In addition, Amy Coney Barrett became a Supreme Court justice, strengthening the Court’s Roman Catholic majority. And Joe Biden became America’s second Catholic president.
Catholics reaching the heights of power in the United States may seem like minor news. American Catholic, though, reminds us that when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, the Vatican still condemned a heresy called “Americanism”: the idea “that American politics set the standard for understanding authority” (24). Also, anti-Catholicism remained common in American culture. Between 1960 and 2020, the relationship between the Roman Catholic church and the United States underwent an epochal transformation.
Among the decisive actors in this story, Hart claims, are the Catholic writers and thinkers who created modern conservatism in the United States. In the 1950s, William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and other Catholic laymen embraced the American founding that their church condemned and the Christian nationalist themes historically espoused by Protestants. By 1960, they had established a new political movement. While many Catholics supported Kennedy, these conservatives were already looking to the libertarian senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, as someone who could bring their agenda to the national stage, which he would do as the Republican nominee for president in 1964. Hart’s focus on these figures challenges the more common story of modern conservatism as an evangelical reaction to the secularization of the 1960s. At the same time, Hart argues, this movement and its heirs also helped make “Americanism” safe for Rome. Yet even though few today ask whether President Biden’s faith can be reconciled with the U. S. Constitution, American Catholic suggests that this peace between America and Catholicism may be more fragile than it appears.
In the first chapter, Hart places the mid-century Catholic experience against the backdrop of anti-Catholicism in America and the Vatican’s opposition to modern politics. When Pope Leo XIII had denounced “Americanism” in 1899, he meant that the American liberal order was “a direct challenge to the church’s ideal of Christendom with the pope as the ultimate arbiter of personal and social life” (24). Though many secular and Protestant Americans questioned the political loyalties of American Catholics, most American Catholics were proud of their nation and often unaware of their church’s teaching on politics. When an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 1927 suggested that Leo XIII’s encyclical against Americanism might prevent Al Smith, the Catholic presidential nominee, from upholding the Constitution, Smith asked “What the hell is an encyclical?” (30).
The second and third chapters focus on Kennedy and the work of the American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray. Like many lay Catholics, Kennedy affirmed the separation of church and state and the authority of his own conscience. But he carried the torch of American civil religion. He kept his Catholic faith out of politics but echoed Puritan John Winthrop’s adaptation of the Sermon on the Mount to describe America as a “city on a hill.” These chapters also describe Murray, who saw the constitutional principles of the United States as a development of the Catholic natural law tradition. When the Second Vatican Council revoked its condemnation of Americanism, with help from Murray, American Catholics could celebrate Kennedy’s embrace of the divine mission of the United States without any qualms.
The conservative movement, though, began before Kennedy and Vatican II. In chapters four and five, Hart focuses on its origins and growth. Like Kennedy, these “Neo-Americanist” Catholics embraced American exceptionalism. The fight against atheistic Soviets made Christian nationalism seem necessary, and aggressive anticommunism gave the new conservative movement its main point of unity. For a time, it saw a path to power in Goldwater, whose 1960 book Conscience of a Conservative, ghostwritten by Buckley’s brother-in-law Brent Bozell, became the “playbook for post-World War II American conservatism” (117). Chapter six focuses on the disillusionment of two prominent figures at Buckley’s magazine National Review—Bozell and Garry Wills. For them, Vatican II did not resolve the tension of being both American and Catholic. Wills eventually embraced the Church’s left wing. Bozell looked back to the pre-Vatican II church and came to doubt the legitimacy of liberal democracy.
Chapters seven and eight describe the era after Watergate, when writers who would eventually be associated the journal First Things emphasized the distinctly Christian character of the United States in new ways. Like Buckley, these thinkers had an “uncommonly positive estimate of the American experiment” (183) and believed America to be a Christian nation failed by its Protestant custodians. But, in the tradition of John Courtney Murray, these writers focused on developing a theological grounding for Americanism rather than, like Buckley, taking the legitimacy of the American order for granted. In fact, they believed Catholicism had a unique role to play in renewing the mission of America.
In his conclusion, Hart says that Vatican II’s attempt at modernization did not end concerns about Americanism. When Pope Francis met with President Obama in 2015, there was “not the slightest hint of the older antagonisms” (216). But within the church, American political divisions deeply influenced the social and theological views of competing factions, with the left and right each arguing “that the other side’s faith was more American than Roman Catholic” (188). In fact, the culture war, Hart says, can be traced back to the fifties, when conservative Americanists like Buckley rejected Kennedy’s political agenda. Alongside this division between left and right, another division has opened up: Catholic thinkers like Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule, in the spirit of Brent Bozell, have begun to doubt the legitimacy of the American constitutional order itself.
I have a personal interest in the story Harts tells. I am a Protestant from Irish Catholic stock. Postwar Catholic Americanism is my cultural inheritance, and this book sheds light on how that culture developed. But American Catholic explores questions relevant to anyone who wants to understand how we arrived at the current state of affairs in American politics. Hart describes a group of writers and thinkers who influenced the nation’s course and built a political movement that many theologically conservative Protestants have supported. Evangelical and Reformed Christians have often relied on these thinkers—wittingly or unwittingly—to guide their civic engagement. Often, they have done so without knowing the theological, ecclesiological, and cultural story of these figures. Whether or not they find all of Hart’s claims persuasive, Protestant readers will be more deeply informed about the dynamics of religion and politics in the United States after reading this book.
Among Hart’s many insights, two in particular seem vital for reflection on the role of Christians in the American public square. First, Hart’s account of the complex recent history of Christian nationalism—a hot topic since the riot at the Capitol building—reveals the problems inherent in constructing a consistent notion of “Christian America.” If Kennedy, a nominal Catholic and serial adulterer, could embrace the Puritan call for a “city on a hill” as a statement of America’s divine mission, what sort of Christianity—if any—does American civil religion represent?
Second, Hart’s attention to the role of John Courtney Murray reveals a line of thought that American Catholic political thinkers have long engaged and Protestants have often neglected: the relationship of the American founding to natural law. Murray’s attempt to show continuity between the ancient and the modern, between God and liberal politics, implies that early American Protestant culture inherited and built on the West’s natural law tradition. As theologically conservative Protestants struggle to understand their role in contemporary America, Murray may be a helpful interlocutor.
What might have added to Hart’s argument, though, is an engagement with Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sun Belt:Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.Like Hart, Dochuk claims modern conservatism began well before the 1970s—a reaction to the New Deal rather than the New Left. And like the Catholics Hart describes, the California evangelicals in Dochuk’s history rallied around Goldwater’s candidacy. Hart has written about evangelicals and political conservatism elsewhere, but some account of how this particular strand of low-brow, postwar, Jeffersonian Protestantism relates to Hart’s historically parallel high-brow Catholic movement might further clarify the Catholic role in the origins of conservatism.
The story American Catholic tells has many layers and draws together two intellectual traditions—Catholic political theology and movement conservatism—that may be unfamiliar to many readers. Although Hart is a Presbyterian, he does not tailor the book to Protestants. Instead, he makes a historical argument aimed at academics and fairly sophisticated general readers. That being said, his writing style is lucid and engaging, and his argument is worthy of serious engagement.
Josh Maloney (MA, Westminster Seminary California; MFA, University of Minnesota) is a freelance writer and editor.