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The Catholic Challenge

Church adherents pose no inherent threat to liberal democracy. The problem in the US is that people in the highest positions of authority, Catholic and Protestant alike, are pushing at the barriers between church and state, erected so carefully by America’s founders to ensure that the people, not God, would govern.

NEW YORK – In his quest for the secret of US democracy in the 1830s, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville reflected on the important role played by religion in American life. Having escaped from the authority of the Pope, he argued, American Christians were free from any religious authority. Christianity in the New World, he concluded, could only be described as “democratic and republican.”

By republican he did not mean the Republican Party, of course, but the republican form of government. And most Christians he met were Protestants. The American Republic was founded by Protestants, and American elites were for a long time largely Protestant. So far, John Fitzgerald Kennedy has been the only Catholic president, and he had to affirm publicly during his election campaign that his first loyalty was to the United States, not to Rome.

But something extraordinary has happened since the republic was founded by Protestants in 1776. Five of the eight current Supreme Court justices are Catholics, and soon there may be six. The one Protestant on the court, Neil Gorsuch, was raised Catholic. (The other two justices are Jewish.) Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is Catholic, as is the US attorney general, William Barr. And Joe Biden, who might be the next president, is Catholic, too.

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