Larry McAndrews is Professor of History at St. Norbert College. This interview is based on his new book, What they Wished For: American Catholics and American Presidents, 1960-2004 (University of Georgia Press, May 2014).
JF: What led you to write What They Wished For: American Catholics and American Presidents, 1960-2004?
LM: Major portions of my books Broken Ground: John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Education and The Era of Education: The Presidents and the Schools, 1965-2001 explored the issue of federal aid to nonpublic schools. From this research I concluded that American Catholics, led by their bishops, enjoyed minimal success in lobbying for such assistance for their parochial schools. When I interviewed Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley for Broken Ground, he quipped that when seeking these funds, he would counsel his fellow prelates, “Let us not test our political muscle, because it isn’t there.”
This conclusion led me to the question of whether the bishops and other representatives of their church had fared any better on other fronts. What They Wished For, much to my surprise, answers that question affirmatively. It turns out that the bishops and other American Catholics have political muscle, after all.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of What They Wished For: American Catholics and American Presidents, 1960-2004?
LM: The election of 1960 did not just usher in the first Catholic president; it introduced an era of considerable Catholic influence on American presidential policy and politics. Despite external setbacks and internal divisions, Catholics would become so socioeconomically secure, culturally relevant, and politically significant that most of them voted against a Catholic presidential candidate in the election of 2004.
JF: Why do we need to read What They Wished For: American Catholics and American Presidents, 1960-2004?
LM: I hope that you will want to read it because it is an original examination of the often important, yet largely overlooked, impacts that representatives of the nation’s largest religious denomination have exerted on critical issues of war and peace, social justice, and life and death for over four decades. Relying heavily on previously unpublished primary sources, including documents from American presidents and Catholic bishops, this book challenges the conventional narrative of the increasingly secular 1960’s and 1970’s, followed by the inevitable religious backlash of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
LM: In my United States history class during my junior year of high school at Fairfield Prep in Connecticut, I decided that I wanted to do exactly what my teacher, Bruce Jaffe, was doing. First, he inspired me to teach, so that I might help young people to learn. Second, he encouraged me to teach history, the subject that I had come to love.
JF: What is your next project?