Catholic Politicians’ Confessions: Something Else Dershowitz Is Wrong About

In reading Dershowitz’s rebuttal to Mearsheimer and Walt, I noticed something else he said:

“It is rightfully considered vile to suggest that American Catholic politicians such as John F. Kennedy and John Kerry owe their primary allegiance to the Vatican over the United States.”

Dershowitz is saying, Don’t you dare bring up Jewishness in politics. But his statement about Catholic politicians is wrong.

Dershowitz can be given the point on John Kerry. During the ’04 campaign the Catholic question came up in a murmurous way that struck me as anti-Catholic. I don’t remember chapter and verse, but it was whispered. And Kerry didn’t have to answer it for a couple of reasons. A, he was unquestionably pro-choice and had thus separated himself from the church on the principal issue about which there might be suspicion of Vatican influence (I believe he’s also anti-pedophilia, another conflict with the Vatican). More importantly: B, John Kennedy and Mario Cuomo had already done the hard work for him.

During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy’s Catholic-ness was raised as an issue. Maybe some of it was vile; but some comments were completely legitimate. The would-be first Catholic president—people wondered what is the relationship between the politician and the Vatican. So two months before the 1960 election, Kennedy gave a famous speech on the subject to an audience of ministers in Houston. It began:

While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election…

Note his words “necessarily and properly the chief topic.” Not “vilely.” Then Kennedy sought to (and did) defuse the issue:

Whatever issue may come before me as President–on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject–I will make my decision… in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

The big enchilada there was “birth control.” Catholics were against birth control. My parents were for it (maybe not fervently enough, I hear my commenter Mr. Anonymous saying). But it was a big issue. The Griswold decision stating that birth control was a private matter, a principle Alito and Scalia (9 kids) savage to this day, didn’t come down till ’64.

In 1984 the Catholic question popped up again. N.Y. Gov. Mario Cuomo was thinking of running for president. Democrats like me wondered how a dedicated Catholic would deal with social questions like abortion. Dershowitz may regard us as vile; Cuomo didn’t. He went to Notre Dame and gave a speech on being a Catholic governor and jumped right into my favorite subject—

What is the relationship of my Catholicism to my politics? Where does the one end and other begin? Or are the two divided at all? And if they’re not, should they be? Hard questions.

The meat of the speech was about abortion. Yes Cuomo was against it, and obeyed his church’s teaching. But when it came to his job he bowed to the political reality of the people’s interest. They were for abortion, by and large, had made that clear.

I believe that legal interdicting of abortion by either the federal government or the individual states is not a plausible possibility and even if it could be obtained, it wouldn’t work. Given present attitudes, it would be “Prohibition” revisited, legislating what couldn’t be enforced and in the process creating a disrespect for law in general.

You can question Cuomo and Kennedy’s answers. But they were presidential aspirants’ answers to serious (i.e., not vile) questions about their beliefs. One of the great things about Mearsheimer-Walt is that it has (finally) politicized the issue of devotion to Israel. If your religious belief dictates a blind devotion to the state of Israel, as Bush aide Elliott Abrams has told us his does

Outside the land of Israel, there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Jewish to be apart–except in Israel–from the rest of the population….

—and you are running for national office, or you are creating policy in the White House on the explosive Middle East, you should be called upon to display something of the same transparency that Kennedy and Cuomo did. The reason Joe Lieberman and the neocon braintrust have never been asked to do so is yes, the shadow of the Holocaust, but also because the Israel lobby has successfully put across the argument that America’s interest and Israel’s interest are utterly congruent. That is what is changing.

(See my previous post on La Dersh)