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For most of the Church’s history in the United States, Catholics have sought to demonstrate to their often suspicious neighbors the possibility of being a faithful Catholic and a patriotic American. This has been no easy task, given the modern and Protestant character of the nation’s founding and its majority culture. Nonetheless, Catholic devotion to American principles was never motivated primarily by fear of persecution. Rather, Catholics were from the beginning convinced that the freedoms afforded by the U.S. Constitution allowed the Church to flourish in unique ways. Such were the enthusiasms of the late-nineteenth-century bishops that Pope Leo XIII felt compelled to warn them not to prefer the American political system to a confessional state.

Things changed with the election of the first Catholic president and, almost simultaneously, Vatican II’s qualified but real endorsement of religious freedom, American style. It should have been a springtime for the Catholic Church in America, but it was not. The acceptability of John F. Kennedy’s faith was dependent on its lightness, and elite America was turning against the very elements that constituted what John Courtney Murray called the “evident coincidence” between the guiding principles of the American polity and the Western Christian political tradition. The sixties witnessed more restrictive interpretations of the establishment clause, the fall of traditional morals concerning sexuality, and an all-out cultural assault on Christianity’s place in public life. This turn has gone from bad to worse. The second Catholic president, for example, is making his devotion to abortion rights a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.

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