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Nine Out of Ten

The Catholic ascendancy in capital city politics

Illinois Times

February 23, 1979

Here I apply the anthropological view of Illinois politics espoused by sociologist Daniel Elazar and historian Richard Jensen to the ol' home town. According to that view, the religion of political actors was not irrelevant to Catholics' success, as the Springfield daily press seemed to think, but central.


I never had occasion to learn if or to what extent the local political establishment in other mid-sized Illinois cities was dominated by Catholics. Hand-to-mouth weekly journalism can afford to offer not the news that's fit to print but the news that's convenient to gather.


Originally published as Springfield City Council: Nine Out of Ten.


Springfield's city primary is over. Now that the dust has settled it's possible to get a clearer look at the ten people who will be vying for the five seats on the city council that will be filled on April 3.


The field is interesting on several counts. All are male. All are white. Most are in their forties, though three are still in their thirties and one is only twenty-eight. All come to the race from business, managerial or professional backgrounds, their ranks including a schoolteacher, two engineers and a public administrator among others. Eight of the ten have at least a college bachelor's degree. Ethnically they include Irishmen, Italians, a German, an Austrian. But one statistic in particular is as remarkable as it has been undiscussed. Nine of the ten are members of the Roman Catholic Church.


It is impossible to say exactly how many of Springfield's approximately 100,000 citizens are Catholic. The Census Bureau keeps a scrupulous distance from the question of religion in its decadal surveys. This part of the country generally is not heavily Catholic; a 1971 national survey put the Catholic proportion for Sangamon County and most of downstate Illinois at less than a quarter.


One citizen—a non-Catholic who lives on State Street on the city's near-southwest side—remarked recently that he'd never lived in a town that felt so Catholic as Springfield does. But his neighborhood is in the middle of what a Catholic native of Springfield describes as a Catholic ghetto. “'If he lived in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn he might say, 'Gee, Brooklyn feels Jewish,'" the native explained, "but he wouldn't be right about that either." Local parish records are not an entirely accurate source, since parish boundaries extend well beyond city lines. But they are accurate enough, and the 31,600 names entered on the rolls of Springfield's eleven parishes jibe well with the popular estimate that Catholics make up about a third of the city.


The domination of city hall by Catholics, then, is a sociological phenomenon, not a demographic one. Springfield politics has been heavily Catholic for a long time, probably since the days of the Sullivan machine around 1900. At first Catholics supplied the votes out of the old ethnic wards, but they gradually moved out of the back room and onto the stump as candidates. Today, a quick canvass of Springfield's school, park, and county boards shows that Catholics hold seats in numbers disproportionate to their number, and the elected judgeships of Sangamon County are Irish Catholic almost to a man.


Though they make up only a third of the local population, Catholics are the biggest single piece in the local political puzzle. (Some of the major ethnic subdivisions like the Germans or the Irish might approach that percentage, but those ethnic ties are weak, and Springfield, like the nation generally, has tended to reorganize old ethnic divisions along more comprehensible religious lines.) This simple fact is rarely credited, partly because newspapers cover politics as if linking it with religion were not only immaterial but in a strange way impolite; also, Catholics rarely vote as a bloc, being riven by ethnic, income, and political differences. The church stays out of partisan politics, perhaps wisely, knowing that consensus among their fractious flock would be impossible.


But if the candidates' church is not a significant factor in their politics, their Catholicism is. Historians have begun to develop a sort of cultural cosmology by which they reduce the ethnic, racial, political, economic, and moral conflicts that litter our past to simpler, recurring contests among a few representative cultural groups, often of wildly different backgrounds but which share certain basic values and beliefs. One such historian is Richard Jensen. In his 1978 book, Illinois: A History, he described the Illinois past as a cycle of conflict and accommodation among three broad cultural views. One of these cultures he calls "traditionalist, " which is characterized (among other things) by a preference for "strong, masculine authority figures, such as the father within the family, the priest in religion, or the boss in politics.” Jensen's traditionalists, predictably, include Catholics.


Sociologist Daniel Elazar drew a more detailed portrait of the type in 1970 when he described the "individualistic" political culture. Individualist politicians, he said, favored a personal, non-ideological, non-improving, utilitarian kind of politics, in which the proper end of local government was the provision of essential services and the maintenance of a congenial environment for private business. (The links between culture and ideology can't be explored here, but it is worth pointing out the candidates' near-unanimous agreement that stimulating private industrial development is the city's top problem and their equally unanimous promises to keep government—and hence government expenditures for services—at a minimum. Slim economic times apparently make traditionalists of everyone.) The individualists came to Illinois from the Mid-Atlantic states originally, but they've been reinforced by subsequent 1979 immigrations from Ireland, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean—all the far-flung roots of the American Catholic culture.


We may assume it's no accident, therefore, that so many of the nine Catholic city hall candidates have either been active in partisan politics or come from families who have been. (One notable exception is Houston, whose Jaycee-service club-Boy Scout background makes him seem a WASP in everything but religion.) Pape and Henneberry, for instance, have each run for partisan-office as a Democrat; Langfelder was a Democratic committeeman for eleven years; Fleischli's family has been active in the what State Journal-Register columnist A1 Manning circumspectly calls "behind-the-scene city politics"; Madonia is a fixture in the county Republican Party, whose chairman is Madonia's superintendent of streets.


For further proof one can point to certain shared aspects of character and style between the politician and a certain class of ambitious Catholic male which tend to strengthen the latter's predisposition toward political success. Seven of the ten city candidates graduated from either Cathedral Boys High School or its successor, Griffin High. Cathedral-Griffin has always been an incubator of sorts, kept warm by its small size, its Catholicism, its students' sense of being different, even down to not being co-ed, (which even today produces a sort of defiant machismo to ward off taunts from public school boys about "gay" Griffin). "You were all one," a Cathedral grad told me a year and a half ago. "One school, one religion, one purpose in life—to be the best. " The Cathedral-Griffin style is combative, ambitious, superior, loyal, with a strong sense of group identification—all of which, not coincidentally, are supreme political virtues.


That city politics should attract politicians is not remarkable; neither, given the broad cultural predilection among Catholics for politics, is the fact that so many of those politicians should be Catholic. Except that Springfield is governed under the commission form of government which is avowedly nonpartisan and which was adopted mainly to obviate the role of partisan politicians in the running of the city. In fact, those kinds of people for whom commission government was supposed to guarantee access to the council—the reformers, the legatees of the progressive good-government ethic, the kind of people that Jensen calls “modernists”—have virtually disappeared from Springfield city politics. The barbarians have overrun the camp.


Still, though these speculations may help explain why Catholics have come to dominate the parties, they do not explain a larger trend, that is, that Catholics are also coming to dominate politics generally. As the New York Times noted in a recent examination of the U.S. Catholic community, "The bulk of the Catholics of the past generation have broken out of the old parish neighborhoods of the industrial northeast and Midwest and have joined the mainstream of life in America"—a fact reflected locally by the growth of suburban-ish parishes like Christ the King and Little Flower. Catholics as a group now earn more money and have better educations than their Protestant counterparts, and the home-owning, tax-paying, petition-signing, voting middle class is now increasingly Catholic.


The implications of this shift are fascinating to contemplate, although that contemplating will have to wait for future columns. For the moment it can be safely said in summary that the 1979 Springfield city elections will be a benchmark election regardless of its outcome, the year Catholic Springfield announced officially and unmistakably that it had come into power. ●




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