Catholics and Presidents’ Day

We welcome Dr. Paul Kengor as an occasional contributor to the CatholicVote Blog. Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

Of the 56 signers to the Declaration of Independence, all were Christians, but only one was Catholic. Of the nearly 100 signers to both the Declaration and Constitution, all were Christians, but only three were Catholic. Fast forwarding, it took nearly 200 years before Americans elected a Catholic president. Even then, no president dared to recognize the Vatican—until Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Alas, it was with President Reagan, and, likewise, President George W. Bush, that American Catholics, in my estimation, reached a decisive turning point from where, mercifully, there should be no turning back. It was a crossroads for tolerance of Catholics by non-Catholics, in politics and public life, helped along by the highest office in the land—by two Protestant presidents.

Given the occasion of Presidents Day, which, during this February 2011, is also the month of the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth, I thought it worthwhile to pause to pay tribute Reagan and George W. Bush specifically, underscoring just what they meant and did for Catholics in this nation’s political life.

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First, Reagan: Ronald Reagan was raised by a Catholic father, even as he gravitated to the faith of his devout Protestant mother. It was at home that Reagan began a hearty respect for Catholics. His first wife, Jane Wyman, ended life a daily communicant, as did Reagan’s only sibling, his brother Neil. As president, Reagan was surrounded by Catholics, especially his closest foreign-policy advisers: CIA director Bill Casey, national security advisers Richard V. Allen and Bill Clark, just to name a few. And then there were those excellent speechwriters—Peggy Noonan, Peter Robinson, Tony Dolan—all Catholic.

Among these individuals, none was closer to Reagan, politically and even spiritually, than Bill Clark. In 1950, a 19-year-old Clark had left an Augustinian novitiate in New York for a career that, instead, took him into politics, the Cold War, and to Reagan’s side from the 1960s (when Reagan was governor) to the 1980s. When that fascinating chapter in Clark’s life closed, he retreated to his ranch in San Luis Obispo County, California, where, among other endeavors, he directed his life’s earnings and wisdom into the construction of a wonderful little chapel that is the pride of the community.

I’m thrilled to report that Clark, on February 10, was inducted into a Franciscan order not far from that chapel—60-plus years after he left the novitiate.

Of course, Reagan was also close to a most remarkable Catholic: Pope John Paul II. Reagan called the late Holy Father his “best friend,” an acknowledgment of their special partnership in jointly defeating a truly Evil Empire.

Reagan aside, consider George W. Bush this Presidents Day: Bush appointed Catholics to many key positions, and achieved far more legislatively for the pro-life cause than any president. It was telling that when Bush needed a director for his cherished Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, he chose Jim Towey, legal counsel to Mother Teresa.

Like Reagan, Bush had profound respect for John Paul II, whom he called an “extraordinary man,” a “great world leader,” a “rare man,” and a “hero of history.” “I’m not poetic enough to describe what it’s like to be in his presence,” said Bush of John Paul II. Bush awarded the pontiff America’s highest honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Bush has likewise been effusive in his praise of Pope Benedict XVI.

With both Bush and Reagan, most of the Catholics they picked were orthodox Catholics who took Church teachings seriously. Compare, for instance, a Bill Clark to Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama’s healthcare chief. Clark keeps vigil before the Blessed Sacrament in a church he built himself; Sebelius is denied the Eucharist because of her flagrant refusal to protect unborn life. Or contrast Bush’s Supreme Court picks, such as John Roberts and Samuel Alito, to Obama’s selection of Sonia Sotomayor, whose Catholicism is elusive at best.

That’s not to say all of Reagan’s and Bush’s Catholic picks have been perfect. Reagan appointed Anthony Kennedy to the high court, where he tossed under the bus the sanctity and dignity of human life, most notably in his horrendous ruling in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992), failing to overturn Roe v. Wade. This Roman Catholic swing vote gravely disappointed his Church.

That said, by and large, Reagan, and George W. Bush, made excellent Catholic selections and overtures. For Catholics in public life, these were changes for the better—changes by two pro-Catholic Protestant presidents. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are two men who deserve our Catholic appreciation. Presidents Day is a good day to be mindful of that.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His books include God and Ronald Reagan, God and George W. Bush, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand, and the newly released Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.

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3 thoughts on “Catholics and Presidents’ Day

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by CatholicVote.org, Sister Weasle F.. Sister Weasle F. said: RT @CatholicVote: Catholics and Presidents’ Day http://cvote.at/HBhMd [...]

  2. Jdb says:

    I will take issue with GWB on his being the first president to allow federal funding of ESCR. That’s a sticky issue in his pro-life record. Otherwise, this is a positive perspective.

  3. Rebekah says:

    +JMJ+

    Great article, Paul. I was feeling a little depressed about it being President’s Day, remembering who our current President is, and what he stands for. Your article cheered me up. :-) Thanks!!

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