The Catholic Vote

My colleague Tom Gallagher has already called attention to Stephen Schneck’s article at CNN about the “Catholic vote.” It is a must-read, examining the distinctions within the category “Catholic” between Latino Catholics, intentional Catholics and cultural Catholics. Schneck is right to insist that the "Catholic vote" be put into the plural if it is to remain a meaningful category within political discourse.

There has long been a debate about whether or not there is a “Catholic vote” anymore. Yesterday, the New Republic ran an article by Ed Kilgore that denied there is such a thing as a Catholic vote, but Kilgore was less convincing than Schneck. As Schneck points out, in the 18th century, immigrant Catholics were overwhelmingly Democratic but this had less to do with national politics than it did with local, machine politics in large urban centers. An immigrant might be met by a family member at Ellis Island, and taken to the ethnic neighborhood that would become their home, introduced to the local priest and the Democratic ward boss. That forged a link that carried over to the national party, which, at the turn of the century was led by William Jennings Bryan who was not a “natural” fit for Catholics and later for Woodrow Wilson who was decidedly anti-Catholic.

As Schneck points out, the Democrats came to embrace the principles of Catholic social teaching on issues like the minimum wage and what was then known as “old age insurance” and what we know as Social Security. These policies cohered both with Catholic ideas and Catholic lives during the long tenure of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the postwar era, as Catholics moved to the suburbs, they lost some of their distinctive religious and ethnic ties, and their partisan links to the Democratic Party became more attenuated. Their political decision-making came to reflect their socio-economic status more than their religion and the Democrats embrace of abortion rights in the 1970s was a final push for some to join the GOP. In 1980, the term “Reagan Democrats” was devised to describe longtime Democrats who bolted their party to back the charismatic Reagan, but the term “swing voting Catholics” might have been devised to describe the same cohort of the electorate.

Social scientists and commentators have argued over the past twenty years of there is any such thing as a Catholic vote and, if there is none, how can it be seen as a swing vote? It is a good question and it should be answered in class Catholic intellectual fashion with a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.” It is true that Catholics as a whole, due to assimilation, now reflect the electorate as a whole. There are conservative Catholics on one side and liberal Catholics on the other. In between, are the Catholic swing voters. What distinguishes Catholics as a religious group in politics, then, is not that they vote as a bloc but that a significant number of them remain up for grabs, which is not necessarily true of other religious cohorts within the electorate.

Let me explain. We know that white evangelicals are going to break for the Republicans by, say, 75% to 25%. (I am dying to meet someone who belongs to that 25% of white evangelicals who vote Democratic!) So, if you are running a campaign for a Democratic candidate, you might be reluctant to run a radio ad the day of the election on Christian radio, reminding people to go to the polls: For every one vote you get for your candidate, you might inspire three voters to vote for the other guy. Conversely, a Republican candidate has little incentive to run a get-out-the-vote ad on a station that targets African-Americans or in a Jewish newspaper. But, campaign strategists do have an interest in targeting those voters in the center of the electorate who might be swayed. The message must be targeted to appeal to those swing voters and, insofar as a lot of them are Catholic and mainstream Protestants, the appeals will likely be inflected with images and ideas that might resonate with Catholics and mainstream Protestants.

Let me give an example of how this can work. When I was working on political campaigns as a speechwriter, I would try to work some quote from the readings at Mass on Sunday into the candidate’s speeches. Those words are already ringing in the ears of your listeners – since the early 1990s, Catholics and most mainstream Protestants have employed a common lectionary, so Catholic, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Methodists all listen to the same readings on Sunday. Rather than having to create a rhetorical meme out of thin air, that you will have to repeat a hundred times before it sticks, if you can quote from the Scripture your listeners already have heard, you strike a chord and create a connection more easily. Most congressional candidates do not have the funds to make weekly television ads, but Team Obama and Team Romney would be well advised to make sure the campaign’s speechwriters and ad makers have a lectionary at hand.

There is one other aspect of Schneck article to which I want to call attention, and that is his idea about distillation being a consequence of disaffection, that is, as some people have drifted away from the Church, for whatever reasons, those who remain do so because they have made a decision to remain within the fold. One of the heartening things about the debate of the HHS mandates and conscience exemptions – and something I hope the bishops noticed – was the obvious fact that Catholics of both the left and the right really love the Church, they really love its colleges and its charities and its hospitals and, even at the cost of publicly disagreeing with a President they like, prominent liberal Catholics rose to defend their Church from what they perceived as a government overreach. To be sure, conservative Catholics continue to dismiss the bishops’ teachings on immigration reform and liberal Catholics continue to dismiss the bishops’ teachings on contraception, but both groups really love the Church, even when they think it is politically quirky and takes stances not to their liking. Schneck’s idea about distillation requires a great deal of study and thought. I think he is really on to something and as the Church continues to navigate what its role in American culture will be, examining why some stay and some go should be a priority for the Church’s leadership.

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