The Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh is one of the most prestigious and luxurious private clubs in the United States. Founded in 1873 as “a fraternity of prominent industrialists,” the club has attained nearly mythical status in the city as an inner sanctum of wealth and power, which few ever glimpse.
Pittsburghers with long memories say that, as with many other city clubs around the country, Catholics were hard to find on the membership roster of the Duquesne Club, whether due to official or to unofficial exclusion, until the second half of the twentieth century. This fact was doubly ironic: Not only was Pittsburgh a majority-Catholic city for much of its history, but the club took its name from Fort Duquesne, founded by French Catholics in 1754, the site of the first Mass in the region.
In 1927, when the city could claim two Catholics for every Protestant, a Chamber of Commerce publicity book proclaimed that “Pittsburgh is so completely Scotch-Irish that if it should be transported to the north of Ireland . . . every Orangeman in the region would welcome it as a blood brother.” Chamber of Commerce documents were written neither by nor for the working-class Catholics who manned Pittsburgh’s mills and factories.
The social exclusion of Catholics in America, on both religious and class grounds, was often tied up with ethnic prejudices. The vast majority of American Catholics belonged to one of the long list of ethnic or national backgrounds that were, at some point or other, considered “non-white”: Irish, Italian, Polish, Lebanese, and so on. And of course today the fastest-growing segment of American Catholics is Latinos, whose historic and present relationship with white racial identity is complicated, to say the least.
It is not too much to say that the history of Catholicism in America until very recently has been one of suspicion, marginalization, and exclusion. It is easy to forget this now that Catholics, especially white Catholics, are securely ensconced in the mainstream of American life. But the full admittance of white Catholics not just to equal social and economic opportunity but to whiteness and Americanness is only a few generations old, at most.
Whatever else is said about the election of 2016, we will remember this campaign for the reemergence of explicit ethno-nationalism as a force in American politics. Rather than listing and litigating the well-publicized instances of pandering to white identity politics that have marked this campaign, let me make some personal observations that I believe are widely shared: I have seen and heard—in public, in private, and online—more unambiguous racism in the past year than I can remember from the rest of my (admittedly rather short) life, combined. I have been exposed to terms of racial abuse that I had not known existed. I have communicated with non-white Americans who are frightened by our politics in a way they never were before.
I was one of the many foolish people who thought a resurgence of explicit white identity politics in America was impossible. The politics of race is an area in which American conservatives often apply a whiggish hermeneutic: We want to believe that the politics of racial and ethnic hierarchy are well and truly behind us—that our society has evolved. This optimism has been encouraged in part by the success of salutary norms of public discourse that mark out of bounds any rhetoric that gestures toward racial supremacy. (This is not “political correctness,” but a humane response to more than four centuries of de facto or de jure oppression on the basis of race.) These norms are currently being eroded at an alarming pace.
This neo-nativism is based on the myth of “white heritage” (about which Congressman Steve King of Iowa stupidly held forth during the Republican National Convention). It is, on the one hand, an understandable (if not excusable) reaction to the solidarity-starved society of secular liberalism. It is also, however, a peculiarly dangerous American tradition—the modern descendant of the laws and social codes once used to exclude everyone but northern European Protestants from full participation in American life.
It is a scandal for any Catholic to support such ideas and the political movements animated by them—not just because they violate Church teaching, but because they betray our history in this country. These Catholics would be exchanging the only social force that can provide a foundation for a healthy and humane solidarity—the Faith—for the emotional affirmation of a mythical cultural identity. They would become what they claim to hate: relativists who cling to a politically-useful identity rather than to enduring truth.
The rightful place of the Catholic is always alongside the poor, the marginalized, the excluded—all the more so because Catholics have traditionally been overrepresented among the poor, the marginalized, and the excluded in American society. This means more than rejecting ethno-nationalist politics, however. It means giving special warrant to the witness and experience of those who continue to be where we used to be.
When we hear a black man describe police violence; when we hear an undocumented immigrant describe exploitative labor; when we hear a prisoner describe institutionalized brutalization; when we hear a young gay woman describe homelessness—our first response must not be to attempt to discredit, to rationalize, to explain away. Rather, we must give them the credit we would expect others to give to us, and try to understand experiences that differ substantially from our own. When white Catholics stand in distant, dispassionate judgment of the experiences of people outside our comfortable mainstream, we betray both the gospel and our forebears in this country.
This doesn’t mean credulously accepting every narrative or policy proposal that is accompanied by a claim of oppression; we still have to apply our rational faculties. It does mean treating every story with the solicitude we would reflexively grant to members of our own economic, social, racial, and religious tribes.
After all, every sign suggests the Catholic experience in America is reverting to the historic mean. As our politics accelerates its drift from Catholic teaching on marriage, family, and justice—and as the liberal norms that provided a hint of insulation from adverse political and economic power wither—we should expect to find ourselves marginalized and excluded from full participation in American life once again.
Mainstream American culture did not particularly want us in the past, and very soon will not want us any longer. Let us take this opportunity to reassert Catholic distinctiveness, in solidarity with those who have been poorly served by the present political and economic dispensation.
Brandon McGinley is a writer and editor in Pittsburgh.