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.
There was a strengthening of the black-Catholic alliance in the 1960s as a direct result of three specific events: Vatican II, JFK's presidency and Latin American liberation theology. From 1962-1965, there was the convening of the Second Vatican Council—also known as Vatican II—an extensive self-examination by the church that was arguably the most important event in Catholic history since 1054. Pope John XXIII used Vatican II to call the church to renewal so that it would serve to unify humankind. One of the byproducts of Vatican II in the U.S. was that it forced American Catholics to affirm African-American integration. This immediately brought the two groups closer.
But even before Vatican II, there was a warming of relations when the two groups coalesced around the candidacy of John F. Kennedy. The first Catholic president was also perceived to have a commitment to the civil rights struggle and a regard for the work of Martin Luther King Jr. Though Kennedy was always hesitant about intervening in civil rights work, he was instrumental in getting King released from prison in 1960, he sent federal troops to help integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962, and he put forward a comprehensive civil rights bill in 1963. King generally embraced Kennedy—and Coretta liked him—so the King-Kennedy link put a public face on positive relations between blacks and Catholics.
In the late 1960s, the infusion of Latin-American liberation theology into black theology connected blacks and Catholics. This brand of prophetic Catholicism placed poverty and oppression as first-order concerns of Jesus. This notion resonated nicely with the aims of the historic black church, which understood itself as speaking to the dispossessed and disinherited, but was criticized for not having a unique theology. African-American theologians fused their own commitments with these liberation theologians to create black liberation theology.
A prime example was Father Michael Pfleger, a Chicago native, most recently known for his associations with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was transformed by this theological synthesis. In 1968, he chose to dedicate his life to serving the African-American community on the South Side of Chicago.
And over 40 years later, Obama has also soaked up the lessons of black-Catholic unity of King-Kennedy, Vatican II and liberation theology from his own local religious engagement in Chicago. He learned from his work at the Industrial Areas Foundation about the overlap between progressive Catholicism and prophetic Christianity.
Perhaps the gains made and alliances forged in the 1960s primed African Americans and Catholics for a “new alliance.” Time will tell what the Obama-Biden administration will make of it.
Andre C. Willis is an assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale Divinity School.