When Roger B Taney, the first Catholic in United States history to assume a Cabinet position, became attorney general in 1831, anti-Catholic bigotry was a prominent feature of American politics — manifest in the worry that “papists” could not really be loyal to their own country.
That bias has since faded, the heaviest blow against it coming when John F Kennedy, America’s first and so far only Catholic president, entered the White House in January 1961. And yet, in American politics, Catholics are still considered a novelty, especially when they rise to high government positions.
During last year’s presidential campaign season, many worried that Donald Trump would struggle with Catholic voters. He ended up winning them over — most significantly in states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, where he needed them most.
And now Catholics will be prominent in Trump’s Cabinet and among his closest advisers.
These will include Steve Bannon, former chairman of Breitbart News, as senior counsellor and chief strategist; Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, as counsellor; Sean Spicer as White House press secretary and communications director; and Mike Flynn, a retired army general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as national security adviser. Of course, there’s also vice-President-elect Mike Pence, who has called himself a “born-again, evangelical Catholic”.
This is not even to count the prominent Catholics – Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich – who were key Trump allies throughout his campaign but who will not have formal roles in the new administration.
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