Indeed, if it were not the case that what is needed is a deescalation of these wild accusations and smears, I would describe it as insane. It has been a notorious fact for many years that Maureen Dowd was irrationally partisan, and that somewhere in her feminism there was a revulsion against traditional Catholicism that was very searing. Further speculation in such matters would be inappropriate, and anything so heartfelt must be respected, at least in its privacy, if not necessarily in where it ramifies in public-policy advocacy. But for a prominent columnist of the New York Times, a newspaper whose rabid antagonism to the Roman Catholic Church is notorious and caused it at the height of the sex-abuse scandal virtually to offer a free tour of Manhattan capped by dinner at a five-star restaurant to anyone who could remember being looked at raffishly by a member of the Catholic novitiate in Patagonia in the Thirties, to utter such maniacal slurs at a vice-presidential candidate who is a moderate and decent man demonstrates more strikingly than any previous evidence how severely riven philosophically America has become.
The (“Know-Nothing”) American party, running against the eligibility of Roman Catholics for public office and advocating severe restriction of Roman Catholic immigration, got 22 percent of the vote in 1856. Alleged proximity to the Roman Catholic Church was raised unsuccessfully as an issue against the Democrats (Grover Cleveland) in 1884. There was great hostility to popery and the perceived personal religious habits of Roman Catholics when Alfred E. Smith was the first major-party presidential candidate of that faith, in 1928. These issues were very civilly discussed in the 1960 election, won by John F. Kennedy. Since then, the Democrats have unsuccessfully run Roman Catholic candidates for vice president in 1968, 1972, 1984, and for president in 2004, and elected Vice President Biden in 2008, but religion played no discernible role in those elections, as it didn’t when there was a Jewish nominee for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 2000.
This year, the administration has overtly attacked the Roman Catholic Church with the attempt to force it to pay for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing medicine for employees and students of Catholic institutions. And now that the Republicans have nominated a practicing Roman Catholic for national office, there is a systematic effort to detach him from “Democratic” Catholics who profess fidelity but are more liberal in their theological views. I have commented here before on the incivility and illegality of this attempt to alter the correlation of forces between sectarian and secular elements in the public life of the country, and on the wisdom of Governor Romney’s choice of a candidate who will force an adult discussion of the very worrisome condition of the country, fiscally and in several other areas, including education, health care, energy, and justice.
The gravity of the problem and the poverty of the Democrats’ reply is well illustrated by the hysteria of its official and unofficial campaign against Paul Ryan the man, not the budget-committee chairman. The Republicans have asked New York’s Cardinal Dolan to give the closing prayer at their convention, and the Catholic Church has already started an advertising campaign warning Americans of all faiths (and none) of the authoritarian appetites of this administration. This is a far more serious divide than Maureen Dowd’s infantilist onslaught indicates, and no one can foretell where it will lead or end. Those Americans with any propensity to pray should do so now, for their country.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].