America could be on the verge of electing its first Catholic Republican president. But it would not be long before he found himself in conflict with Church leaders

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This year there are no fewer than six Catholics competing for the Republican presidential nomination. They are former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal, former New York governor George Pataki, Florida senator Marco Rubio and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Of all of these, Jeb Bush has the best shot. He’s currently polling behind frontrunner Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman with unconvincing hair. But Trump will probably disappear once voting starts. Moreover, Jeb Bush has already raised more than $100 million in campaign donations. The man with the most money generally wins. America would hardly be a property-owning democracy if the White House couldn’t be bought.

Bush’s rise and rise is largely down to power, privilege and his undoubted talents as a politician. But it also tells us something interesting about the changing role of Catholicism in American public life. What was once associated exclusively with the Democrats and the Left has recently developed a conservative political dimension.

But as Catholicism emerges as a powerful influence within the Right-wing elite, we shouldn’t assume that this alliance is straightforward and without disagreement. On the contrary. A Catholic Republican president would probably find himself in conflict with the Vatican itself. To understand why, consider the faith and politics of Jeb Bush.

Bush grew up a rich Episcopalian in a country where Catholicism was regarded as a working-class thing, bracketed with booze and political corruption. Catholics were overwhelmingly Irish, Italian or East European, lived in the northeast of the country and were a cog in the Democratic machine. The model Catholics were the Kennedys. Jack Kennedy became the country’s first and only Catholic president on the Democrat ticket in 1960. Robert Kennedy attended Mass with striking Mexican labourers. Teddy Kennedy somehow reconciled his faith with support for legalised abortion. This “Social Gospel” tradition continues in Vice President Joe Biden, who not only takes a pro-choice position but also champions gay marriage (and is reportedly considering a presidential run).

The politics of Catholicism diversified, however, in the 1960s. Catholic influence grew on the Right thanks to popular thinkers like William F Buckley, who showed the traditionally WASP Republican elite that Catholicism offered conservatism an intellectual template – at the same time as the mainline Protestant churches were moving to the Left.

In the 1980s, Republicans turned to John Paul II for moral leadership in the war on communism abroad and sexual licence at home. They also discovered that many of the old Kennedy voters – blue-collar union members – were dissatisfied with the social liberalism of the Democratic Party, and so they all joined hands in an electoral backlash against the permissive society. In the 1990s, several Catholic conservatives entered national politics, while a surprising number of Protestant Republicans crossed the Tiber. Jeb Bush swam over in 1995. He was influenced by that other, hugely important change to Catholic American identity – Latinos.

In 1970, Bush visited Mexico as a high school exchange student. He met and fell in love with a girl called Columba Garnica Gallo. They married in 1974 when he was 21 and she was 20. Bush didn’t immediately convert to Columba’s faith, although their children were raised as Catholics and he attended church with them. He didn’t receive Communion but was seen kneeling and praying. Parallel careers in real estate and political activism followed. In 1994, Bush ran for governor of Florida and lost. He admits that his marriage came under strain and that he found “great comfort” in conversion classes.

Bush was received into the Church in Easter 1995. He explained: “I converted to being a Catholic in honour of my wife and because I believe in the blessed sacraments.” It’s plain that for Bush family is a critical part of his faith. Although Columba avoids the political spotlight, her influence on the domestic front is obviously strong.

Bush’s absorption into Latino culture also became a big part of his political appeal. In 1998, he was elected to the governor’s mansion with 61 per cent of the Latino vote. To this day, he touts a more flexible approach to immigration – a position that the Republicans probably need to adopt if they are ever to win back the White House in a multicultural America.

As a governor, Bush was a good example of the growing intellectual influence of Catholic thought – of the powerful alternative that it offered to the wishy-washy Episcopalian tradition. “I love the sacraments of the Catholic Church,” he told reporters, “the timeless nature of the Catholic Church, the fact that the Catholic Church believes in, and acts on, absolute truth as its foundational principle and doesn’t move with the modern times, as my former religion did.” Whereas John Kennedy felt it necessary to reassure voters that he wouldn’t let Catholic doctrine determine his agenda, modern Republicans are happy to acknowledge the role that faith plays in their policy making.

Governor Bush supported tough anti-abortion laws. He also gained national attention when he threw himself into one of the biggest pro-life battles of the 2000s.

In 1990, Terri Schiavo, a resident of St Petersburg in Florida, suffered a cardiac arrest. She survived but was left in a persistent vegetative state. In 1998 her husband, Michael, petitioned to have her feeding tube removed, believing that his wife would want to die. Her parents objected, arguing that she appeared to respond to the presence of loved ones. The matter went to the courts and the tube was removed and then reinserted.

In October 2003, it was taken out yet again – and the matter turned political. The Florida legislature passed Terri’s Law, which gave Bush the power to intervene. Bush had Mrs Schiavo removed from her hospice and the feeding tube surgically reinstated. It was an extraordinary act; the local courts ruled it unconstitutional. In 2005, the federal government stepped in and Bush’s brother, President George W Bush, returned from holiday to Washington DC to sign legislation to keep Mrs Schiavo alive. Ultimately, the federal courts concurred with the state courts and – for the final time – demanded that the tube be withdrawn. Mrs Schiavo died on March 31, 2005.

The Schiavo case reflected America’s profound cultural division. Religious conservatives wanted to save Terri Schiavo because they believed she had a right to live. But they also saw the battle as part of the wider war against abortion: if a woman in a vegetative state who could not survive without medical support had a right to live, then so, too, did the unborn child.

The patient’s parents were Catholic and the Church played a prominent role in public argument against her assisted death. As such, it’s understandable that those liberal Americans who favoured removing the feeding tube saw this not just as a matter of doing what Mrs Schiavo might have really wanted but also of separating church and state.

Caught in the battle between these two forces was a helpless woman with no actual ability to speak for herself. Whatever side one takes in the matter, the thought of her body being politicised and subjected to one surgical procedure after another gives the episode an unpleasant Kafkaesque quality.

Nevertheless, Bush’s determination to “save” Terri Schiavo proved his pro-life credentials. It will probably help him in his presidential race today. Conservative Catholics have often made the strongest, calmest and most compelling case for the pro-life cause – and their ability to inject reason into the debate has assisted the ascendency of Catholicism within the Right. It’s an ascendancy, however, that is highly controversial. Not least with the Church itself.

The American Right has always insisted that liberal Catholicism is theology compromised by politics – a belief in the Church compromised by social libertinism. Ironically, this is starting to look true of conservative Catholicism as well. Its theology also appears compromised by its politics – by its commitment to American Right-wing ideology.

For example, during Bush’s period as governor, Florida executed 21 people – the most since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1976. It was all part of a political effort to appear tough on crime: one advocacy group actually accused Bush of timing executions to coincide with elections. He also privatised the provision of legal defence for people on death row, in order to reduce the length of unprofitable appeals, and threatened to cut the state’s supreme court budget if it struck down laws designed to speed up executions.

All of this conflicts with the emphasis in recent Catholic teaching upon the near-useless, arbitrary and iniquitous nature of the death penalty. But it was very popular with conservative voters. No wonder, then, that some liberals accused Bush of being a fair-weather convert: of emphasising his Catholicism in conversation with Latinos but ignoring any teachings that might aggravate the Right-wing base.

One clear area of conflict between Bush and the Vatican is climate change. Before his encyclical on the environment was unveiled, Pope Francis had already irritated Catholic conservatives with his denunciation of capitalism. But by picking on the fossil fuel industry – one of the wealthiest lobbies in Washington DC – he really put himself in
the doghouse. Rick Santorum, a long-shot for the Republican nomination, declared: “The Church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.” Jeb Bush concurred: “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my Pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

There are a few problems with Bush’s reaction. First, he injected faith into politics several times as governor. Second, this is one instance where critics would say that a clear majority of scientists and the Vatican are united. Third, Bush’s own state is on the frontline of global warming – the 2014 National Climate Assessment ranked Miami as one of the cities most likely to flood in the coming years. Fourth, US Catholic voters almost all agree with the Pope – 71 per cent say that the earth is warming up. Interestingly, that figure falls to around 50 per cent when just Republican Catholics are polled.

In other words, the anti-climate change agenda is a specifically conservative “heresy” rather than a more broadly American one.

It is conceivable that Bush could win the nomination and the presidency, and America could end up with its first Catholic president in more than half a century. Yet, in spite of all these apparent blessings, there could still be tensions between the White House and the Vatican – as well as with the traditionally Left-leaning US bishops. The Church has long prayed for a Catholic in the White House who agrees with them on abortion. Only the Republicans could ever give them one. But Republicans bring with them a lot of other political prejudices that conflict with Church teaching. Hence, the Church would gain in Bush an ally on abortion but an opponent on economic and social policy – the very areas that this Pope has chosen to prioritise. Politics can make strange bedfellows.

It can also make surprising enemies.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (21/8/15).

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