One of the fascinating demographic tidbits of the 2008 presidential election results shows that President-elect Barack Obama won a startling 54 percent of the Catholic vote—more Catholic votes than any other Democratic presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy (who garnered around 80 percent). To understand how a pro-choice, African-American candidate generated more support from American Catholics than Catholic John Kerry in 2004, one has to acknowledge both the effectiveness of Obama’s campaign strategy and the history between African Americans and Catholics.
While there have been tense moments, the historic relationship between African Americans and Catholics has been one of quiet acceptance. As far back as 1450, the church issued papal statements unequivocally opposing chattel slavery, and as a result, the Catholic Church has managed to avoid long-running hostilities between African Americans over the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Of course, many individual Catholics went against the formal position of the church and chose to participate in and profit from slavery. These Catholics began converting Africans in the New World to Catholicism, especially in the French and Spanish colonies of South and Central America and in the North American South. In the United States, the legacy of this era is most visible in New Orleans.
Though there was a vast social and cultural distance between free African Americans and newly arrived, immigrant Catholics in the North (having just escaped the Great Famine), they peacefully coexisted until the New York City draft riots in 1863, which left scars on both sides. After Emancipation, immigrant Catholics began to view newly freed African Americans as competition for jobs, and black-Catholic relations deteriorated. Ironically, around the turn of the century, the majority of urban blacks had much in common with the majority of Catholics: they both lived in ghettos, both had high unemployment and crime rates, and both faced violence at the hands of white Protestants.
The Vatican’s response to social inequality affecting American Catholics was radical: they developed a nationwide network of schools, homeless shelters and child-care agencies and forged an institutional identity based on charity. While these efforts were directed toward the welfare of Catholic families, they also benefited poor African Americans who generally resisted the hateful anti-Catholic sentiments common among many Protestants.