Lawrence J. McANDREWS. What They Wished For: American Catholics & American Presidents, 1960-2004. Univ. of Georgia Press. 503 pp.  2014 ISBN 978-0-8203-4683-0 503 PP.  Reviewed by James R. KELLY, Sociology emeritus, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458

          McAndrews, professor of history at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, has written a highly detailed, hugely footnoted account of the role that American Catholics and their Church played in presidential elections from 1960 to 2004. That’s nearly half a century, from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, with Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton in between.  McAndrews  has two main wishes for What They Wished For: to encapsulate the socio-political generational changes undergone by the historically mostly immigrant Catholics on the American periphery as their successors became contemporary Catholics mostly firmly established in the American center, and how these changes  impacted presidential elections. His narrative arc contrasts Catholic delight in successfully electing John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president to their nonchalant rejection of the third (Al Smith trounced by Herbert Hoover in 1928 was the first) Catholic presidential candidate, John Kerry.  Some will find the book very valuable, while others may not, and both for the same reason – its relentless detail.

What They Wished For’s 503 pages contains 100 pages of footnotes,  the vast majority from governmental files, libraries, archives of Presidential libraries, White House Office of Records Management, the US Conference of Catholic  Bishops, various archdioceses and universities.  The book is more than detailed; it’s (to badly coin a word) minute-ualized.  A bit too often the experience is more like reading index cards than a well-told tale.  Still, while tedious for the general reader McAndrews’ no-memo- left -unrecorded passion makes for a good resource book for students of American Catholicism who lack the time or the inclination to visit all those archived files. Besides, those readers will find the author is also a two-handed citer of prominent American Catholic historians (see footnote 1) and serious Catholic journalism (see footnote 2).

As the pluralistic “they” in What They Wished For includes not only a very diverse American laity and hierarchy, and a global Church exceedingly more diverse, it’s not a simple matter for the author to say simply what each of these constituencies wanted in this half century of presidential elections, and how much of it they got from the presidents they elected. It’s easier looking backwards, so, first, the overall McAndrews’ judgment and then some specifics.

His overall appraisal ranges from the critically benign to the benignly critical.  By Bush vs. Kerry in 2004, he writes, Catholics had become so politically significant, and anti-Catholicism had so greatly diminished, that unlike 1960, this time most of them put their politics before their religion, voting for the  southern Protestant Republican George W. Bush against the  Catholic Democrat John Kerry. 

McAndrews’ concludes that in the eleven presidential elections from 1960 to 2004 the now mainstream Catholics had a “substantial impact on a secular government in a Protestant culture” by shaping the dialogue. American Catholics, he writes, did not always win the debates surrounding the policies of their presidents. But whether espousing the just war doctrine, Catholic social teaching, or the consistent ethic of life, American Catholics, he says, often made sure that those debates took place. “Catholics put thoughts into the minds of the American people and words into the mouths of American presidents. Though at times crippled by dissent and crushed by scandal, the Church somehow remained resourceful and resilient. The U. S. presidents at times disregarded and defied it. But they dared not ignore it.”

As the Catholic vote had ceased to be reliably Democratic it became statistically victorious.  Like Los Vegas odds-makers, Catholics backed – and greatly affected - the presidential election winners. McAndrews’ conclusion echoes E. J. Dionne’s clever “There is no Catholic vote and it matters.” Swing voters swing elections, and Catholics had become the biggest swingers among American voters.

But American Catholics voting for presidential winners did not mean that catholic social thought also won.  “In the years between electing and rejecting one of their own as the leader of their government,” McAndrews writes, “American Catholics alternately followed and forsook the dictates of the leaders of their church. On elements of war and peace, social justice, and life and death, American Catholics evinced the political prowess befitting one-quarter of the country’s population. But they also displayed a diversity of opinion reflecting their dissonance along lines of race, class, gender, and political affiliation….. As early as 1965, Pope Paul VI was renouncing war, and as early as 1968 the U.S bishops were raising questions about the Vietnam conflict. Yet Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford extended the strife in Southeast Asia for seven more years. Twice within a dozen years U.S. presidents named Bush fought wars against Iraq that, Pope John Paul II and the American bishops implied in 1991 and amplified in 2003, were unjust.” 

Polls showed that the principles of Catholic social thought powerfully expressed in the United States Conference of Bishops’ pastoral letters such as The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (1983) and Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U. S. Economy (1986) were not read by most Catholics or preached by most priests while the media reported that papal and episcopal questioning of nuclear deterrence and  advocacy for a more egalitarian economy were vigorously contested by far more than a handful of Catholic public intellectuals. McAndrews writes that the Church’s politically confounding subversion of static liberal-conservative categories with its efforts to link its oppositions to war and abortion in a consistent ethic of life have thus far failed. On his last page he tells us, “Popes, bishops, and priests, as they have repeatedly reminded Americans, do not engage in partisan politics and do not make public policy. All they can really do to influence both is to talk – and then talk some more.”

Catholicism has many tongues and many ears and, at the moment, its many eyes are looking wonderingly in the attractive and potentially challenging direction of Pope Francis.  In terms of American politics and global solidarity a key question will be, do we become more Catholic Americans or more American Catholics? Is Catholic a descriptive adjective or substantive noun?   McAndrews’ answer is “Both”.  Those looking for a more rigorous answer will have to look elsewhere.

1. For example, James Hennesey, SJ, American Catholics (1981); Timothy Byrnes, Catholic Bishops in American Politics, 1991; Jay Dolan, The American Catholic Experience, (1992); Thomas Reese SJ, A Flock of Shepherds, 1992; Charles Morris, American Catholic (1997); Mark Massa SJ, Catholics and American Culture (1999); Jay Dolan, In Search of an American Catholicism (2002); John McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom, (2003); Patrick Carey, Catholics in America, (2004); James Fisher, Communion of Immigrants, (2008).

2. Most often cited are American, Commonweal, The National Catholic Reporter, Catholic World, Origins, and also, among others, The New York Times and Washington Post.