A New Generation of Conservative Thought

The vanguard of American conservatism: Catholic blacks and Latinos

By Dr. Grace Vuoto
December 14, 2010

The current Congress has been acrimonious and partisan. Yet there is good news for conservatives in 2011: the new Congress has a record number of conservative blacks and Latinos. As American demographics change, it will be imperative, if the conservative movement is to thrive, to ensure that minorities identify themselves as conservative. The Catholic Church, due to its universal appeal and cultural flexibility, has a unique opportunity to spearhead a conservative revival.

By 2050, according to the Census Bureau, whites will no longer be a majority in America. If this projection holds and the majority of minorities continue to by and large vote for liberal candidates, then in a few decades, America’s traditional values will be reduced to rubble in the public sphere. Hence, America’s Christians must be proactive in thwarting this development.

The Catholic Church can be at the vanguard of this movement, given its track record of bringing about dramatic change. Currently, the Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church in the world and has over a billion members. It has proven throughout the centuries that it has the capacity to attract followers of widely different cultures and races. In the second half of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church made its largest gains in Africa. From 1978 to 2004, Catholics in Africa almost tripled, going from 55 million to 149 million, according to Vatican statistics. While, by contrast, in America and Asia, the growth of the Catholic Church kept pace with the expansion of the population.

There are currently 2 million black Catholics in America. The widespread perception among blacks is that the Catholic Church is predominantly a “white-man’s church.” Approximately 78 percent of American blacks are protestant and 5 percent are Catholic, according to a January 2009 report by the Pew Forum titled “A Religious Portrait of African Americans.” But what if the Catholic Church showed the same success in America as it has abroad? What impact would this have on the battle to uphold traditional values?

In order to be more visible and attractive to the black population, the Catholic Church should retain parishes and schools in inner cities, advises Father Cyprian Davis, in an article featured in the November-December newsletter of The National Black Catholic Congress titled “In the beginning, there were black Catholics.” Father Davis, the author of The History of Black Catholics in the United States (Crossroad, 1992), insists that issues of identity are important to the black population and that blacks need to be better educated in their own contributions within the Church.

Father Davis points to the Mediterranean roots of the Catholic Church: “Remember, Ethiopia was a Christian nation earlier than many nations in Europe,” he states. “It was a Christian kingdom before Ireland was evangelized, before most of North Germany was evangelized, and before Poland was a Catholic country.” He also highlights the role of blacks, such as the first black priest Augustus Tolton who formed a black parish in Chicago in the late nineteenth century; black saints like Saint Benedict the Moor and Saint Moses the Black; and black lay figures such as Pierre Toussaint of Haiti who led an exemplary life and whom Farther Davis hopes is one day canonized.

Black Catholics arrived in America in Florida in the 16th century, brought by the Spaniards from the Congo that earlier had been converted to Catholicism. Jesuits also converted American blacks to Catholicism in Maryland and Louisiana. The Catholic Church was not at the forefront of the abolitionist or civil-rights movement, therefore leading many blacks to view the Church as insensitive to their needs. This, according to Father Davis, is still a common problem, despite the tremendous improvements that have occurred over the last few decades. “There's a lack of sensitivity toward the needs of black Catholics. While there might be a ministry for black Catholics, it isn't always necessarily funded the way it should be.”

Father Davis is calling for greater visibility of black Catholics; he is encouraging greater efforts to encourage black vocations and to cater, in some parishes, to black sensibilities and tastes. He believes black Catholics can play a key role in spreading traditional values to blacks at large: “Black Catholics have something to give in terms of a moral sense and an appreciation of what it means to be a family, to be educated, to create hope, to help turn around attitudes of young people who have so little moral fiber. But we, as black Catholics, have got our job cut out for us in bringing about the regeneration of a whole people. We can do it; I think that's our opportunity.”

The Catholic Church also has a golden opportunity to influence the Latino population in America. Latinos are growing at an astronomical rate—and 68 percent—are Catholic, according to an April 2007 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life titled “Changing faiths: Latinos and the transformation of American Religion.” The study found that Latinos are increasingly drawn to a charismatic expression of their faith. In addition, Latinos see religion as a guide to forming their political opinions; they also do not mind political advocacy from the pulpit. The report found that evangelical Latinos are more likely to identify themselves with the Republican Party whereas Catholic Latinos mostly identify with the Democratic Party. This mirrors the larger national trend among white Catholics also.

Latinos generally hold conservative family values, yet like their fellow black Catholics, do not necessarily vote along those lines. Yet, if Catholics become proactive in reaching out to blacks and Hispanics—and especially transmitting the simple message that they have the power to shape the destiny of America on key values such as abortion, gay marriage and the traditional family—America’s heritage can be safeguarded.

On the other hand, failure to do so, means, as our demographics change and minorities become the majority, that we will lose the battle to shape the future and we will forsake America’s core values. The Catholic Church has a unique ability to transcend and captivate various cultures; we will therefore have a golden opportunity to save America from itself.

-Dr. Grace Vuoto is the Executive Director of the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.