The States Project

Pennsylvania: A Progressive Theologian Recalls His Republican Roots

By | May 1, 2012

Harvey Cox


I grew up in an intensely political household in Chester County, Pennsylvania. My parents and grandparents were Republicans, active in local, county and state politics. Although I changed considerably in my political views since my childhood, I still admire their persistence, dedication and hard work. They not only believed politics made a real difference, they seemed to enjoy it, even when they lost, which was frequent, especially in national elections in which they faithfully supported Hoover (1932), Landon (1936), Willkie (1940) and Dewey (1944). But “that man in the White House” always seemed to win. Then the local Democrats would drive through the streets in their Chevys and Fords, honking the horns in celebration. They would always pause in front of our house, and eventually my father would step out onto the porch and wave to them. He was a good loser. In those days he had to be.

He was not a loser in Chester County, however. The Republicans always won. The county hugs the southeast corner of the state, bordering Delaware and Maryland. My ancestors had been involved in organizing the Republican Party there in 1854. They were Quakers and abolitionists. Since the party’s founding, Chester County voted Republican year after year—until 2008 when Barack Obama carried it.

Pennsylvania is a large state. It borders New Jersey in the east, New York on the north, Maryland and Delaware and part of West Virginia on the south and Ohio to the west. It has two large cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, each with encircling suburbs. It has a lake port, Erie, on its northwest border. The southeastern section was originally settled by religious immigrants—first Quakers, then Amish, Brethren and Mennonites. I went to public school with Mennonite kids whom my parents admired for their good manners and simplicity. Not far from our house we could see Amish people working their fields with horses and driving their buggies along narrow roads. The names of many towns in the state, like Goshen, Ephrata and Bethlehem, echo their religious roots.

As history unfolded, Pennsylvania diversified. Poles, Germans, Italians and Irish came, some to dig coal or drill in the oil fields, others to work in the factories. Many of them were Catholics. Chester County became a center for “little steel” while the northeastern part of the state became a section of “big steel.” Bethlehem is there, as is Scranton, hometown of Joe Biden, America’s first Catholic vice president. In the 1930s and 40s, large numbers of southern Black people moved to Philadelphia during the “great migration.” Some found their way along the mainline railway tracks, and a number eventually settled in our little town where we all attended the same school. In the mid 1950s, I worked as a student pastor at Temple University in “North Philly,” which has the largest concentration of Blacks in the city. Most of my students were Black and, since it was a commuter school and my duties on the weekends were light, I became closely familiar with several of their powerful churches. One in particular was Zion Baptist Church led by the Rev. Leon Sullivan, with whom I became friendly. But I visited several, and my Black students gladly took leadership positions in the student Christian organization at Temple. I date the impulse that led me later to work with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement to that time in my life.

In the past few years the electoral map of Pennsylvania has come to resemble the United States in miniature. There is a “blue” belt stretching along the eastern border, from the Delaware River to Philadelphia and its suburbs. There is another blue area around Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. There is a blue patch in the northeast around Erie. The central and northern parts of the state are red.

Things change, but culture lingers. In 1971, when the government tried the Catholic priest and onetime member of the FBI’s ten most wanted, Philip Berrigan, for conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger, they chose the federal court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, thinking it was a conservative area. In many respects it was and is. But what the feds had overlooked was that a strong pacifist and anti-military sentiment, derived from its pietistic religious past, still clung to the atmosphere, and there was considerable support in the area for the group, then dubbed the “Harrisburg Seven.” After all, he was “Father” Berrigan, so the local Catholics were sympathetic to him, and many of the Protestants, especially of the “peace churches,” admired him too. But Berrigan and his associates did not dispute what they had done. Berrigan and fellow defendant, the Catholic Sister Elizabeth McAlister were convicted on the lesser charges of smuggling letters in and out of Lewisburg prison, where Berrigan was serving time for burning draft files in Maryland. The two were given short terms; he was eventually paroled and her conviction was later overturned on appeal. A hung jury on the charges against the rest of the Harrisburg seven led to their release.

Pennsylvania was once home to some of the strongest labor unions, representing the mine workers, steelworkers and electrical workers. But, as in many states, the old “industrial” culture of Pennsylvania has declined while a new electronics and communications web has spread. The “health industry” has also grown. In the 2008 election the question one constantly heard in Pennsylvania was, “How will the blue collar vote go?” Some Obama supporters were concerned that Obama’s race might jeopardize his chances. And Scranton came to symbolize these questions. Yet Obama carried Pennsylvania handily with nearly 55 percent of the vote, and Scranton was a part of his victory.

As a person who watches Pennsylvania politics with interest, indeed with fascination, I am amazed that Rick Santorum, who must be considered a radically conservative Catholic, got as far as he did in the GOP primaries. He was after all, trounced in the Senate election of 2006 by Bob Casey, a liberal, but pro-life, Democrat. The word “trounce” is not hyperbolic. Santorum lost by the largest margin ever recorded in a Senate election for an incumbent Pennsylvania Republican. I also wonder what my “traditional” Republican ancestors, who helped organize the party around the traditions of progressivism and abolitionism would think of the present state of their party, with its emphasis on traditions that seek to limit the rights of some Americans, not expand them. I do not think they would like it.

As the primary season ends and the general election campaign begins, it would be well to keep an eye on my home state. More than Iowa or New Hampshire, it is a “little USA,” with most of the ethnic and religious diversity now present in the country as a whole. As the returns roll in, I will remember with fondness those many nights during my boyhood, when I sat with my father next to our radio, waiting to see how Chester County, Pennsylvania, and the whole country would vote. I have never lost that sense of suspense and excitement. I am sure it will come back in a rush during 2012.

Harvey Cox is the Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard University.


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