The Catholic Vote Today & Tomorrow

by Michael Sean Winters

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Several recent articles have focused on the Catholic vote, all of which have some good points and some weak analysis, but which, taken together, demonstrate one of the more salient facts of political life: The Catholic vote is often decisive and always matters.

Patricia Miller’s article in Salon begins: “It’s one of the central contradictions of American politics: that there’s no such thing as the ‘Catholic vote,’ yet the Catholics vote still matters.” Contradiction is not the right word and the phenomenon has been around and obvious for some time. Back during the 2008 presidential race, at an event at Boston College’s Boisi Center, I was asked about this “contradiction” and explained that the Catholic vote matters because it mirrors the electorate at large. Evangelical voters tilt so heavily to the Republicans, it is almost never worthwhile for a Democrat to craft a message that might appeal to Evangelical voters, or advertise on Evangelical radio stations. Conversely, Jews vote for the Democrats in such overwhelming numbers, Republicans are rarely tempted to calibrate their campaign message so that it resonates with Jewish voters.

Catholics split down the center. Some will always vote for the Republicans and some will always vote for the Democrats, but because they occupy the center as well, with a significant number of Catholics willing to swing one way or the other, candidates almost always have an interest in delivering a message that is inflected with Catholic themes or issues so as to sway those swing voters.

As Miller notes, white Catholics increasingly line up with the Republicans but the shift is offset by the fact that Latino Catholics are increasingly supporting the Democrats. Campaigns in 2016 may be able to use the language difference to appeal to different sectors of the Catholic electorate. This should frighten the bishops, as it would reinforce the divisions within the Catholic Church that already exist. They will increasingly pay a stiff price if they continue to behave as surrogates for the Republican Party seeing as the only part of the Church that is growing is the part that speaks Spanish.

My friend (and boss) at Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, told Miller that one of the reasons for the swing of white Catholics to the GOP is that many liberal Catholics have left the Church. “More and more of those who remain are those who actively choose to embrace the church and its teachings,” Schneck said. I would agree with this, but with two big qualifiers. First, many ex-Catholics left the Church to become evangelical, not religiously unaffiliated, and this group was surely among the more conservative and GOP-leaning while they remained within the Church of Rome. Second, “those who remain” only embrace some of the Church’s teachings. As Miller notes, a shocking number of white Catholic Republicans, one-third, think the GOP is too soft on immigration. After Lampedusa and the bishops’ Mass at the Border and the various intra-ecclesial campaigns to raise awareness about Church teaching on the rights of migrants, this fact only shows that large numbers of conservative Catholics pick and choose among the Church’s teachings and, just as importantly, they have been thoroughly secularized by those Catholic Republicans who have made a living encouraging people to cling to their political beliefs more fiercely than their religious ones.

Miller makes a mistake that is as unforgivable as it is common: She compares voting preferences in presidential and non-presidential years. There are two electorates in America, those of us who vote every chance we get, and those who only vote in presidential contests. Comparing the Catholic vote in 2014 and 2012 is like comparing the vote for Likud on Tuesday with the vote for Scott Walker last November. She is right to note that the controversy over the HHS contraception mandate solidified GOP gains among white Catholics just as GOP resistance to immigration reform solidified the Democratic gains among Latino Catholics. All in all, though, Miller’s piece is fair if not exactly groundbreaking.

The same could not be said of Ellen Carmichael’s piece at Opportunity Lives. Carmichael is a campaign strategist, not a journalist, so she has no special obligation to be balanced and fair. But, she does have an obligation to be smart. She writes:

In recent years, Democrats have excused their failures to win the Catholic vote by pinning the blame on a church leadership that as of late has become increasingly outspoken against liberal policies that threaten their autonomy or violate the consciences of its believers. They cling to hope that Catholics still value economic populism, which Democrats promise to deliver in a government-coerced redistribution of wealth, more than they do their (as the Left sees it) antiquated religious values. In their minds, it’s only a matter of time before America’s secularization sweeps Catholics, too, and they will return to their rightful home – the Democratic Party.

Carmichael is correct that many Catholic Democrats blame the rightward tilt of the bishops for the shift in the electorate. I am suspicious of the degree to which the political leanings of bishops have ever determined the voting behaviors of the flocks, and not just in politics: No matter what the Legion of Decency had to say, God Himself was not going to keep my mother away from a movie starring Clark Gable. But, the bigger problem with Carmichael’s analysis is the idea that it is only the Democrats who are counting on secularization to afflict the Catholics. As noted above, the degree to which Republican Catholics dismiss traditional Catholic teachings on the purpose of government, the primacy of the common good in political decision-making, and the obligation of society to the poor and the marginalized, these dismissals indicate a secularization too. Yes, too many liberal Catholics are too quick to make excuses for the pro-choice stance of the Democrats they support. But, too many conservative Catholics are unwilling to challenge their party on poverty, immigration and, soon, environmental stances which clash with the Church’s teachings. Carmichael’s attempts to grapple with this dissent, such as her take on charity, are laughable. I do not know Ms. Carmichael, but I would not advise spending one penny on acquiring political strategy from her regarding Catholics.

At Our Sunday Visitor, Russell Shaw has the best of the three articles. His analysis is fair and well-stated but, more importantly, he concludes with this sad observation from Michael Gerson about the fact that Catholic voters mirror the rest of the electorate:

There is something vaguely disturbing about the precise symmetry of any religious group with other voters of their same class and background. One would hope that an ancient, demanding faith would leave some distinctive mark.

I do not even think the disturbance is vague. In the wake of Roe and with the advent of more conservative leadership in Rome, the leadership of the Church in the United States, both episcopal and lay, increasingly became disaffected from the party that was the traditional home of the Catholic working class and instead of staying and fighting for the soul of that party, they bolted to a Republican party that was, and is, completely at odds with the entire worldview of Catholic social doctrine. Where was the effort, for example, in the Southwest and West, to school and support pro-life, pro-union, Catholic Latinas, get them scholarships to college and law school, and hope they would run for office some day? Where was? Where is such an effort?

Again, I think voting changes happened for a variety of reasons and that what the bishops say was never at the top of the list. But, well funded commentators like George Weigel and Robbie George started making the case to Catholics that the GOP was their natural home, and for reasons I still do not understand, the mainstream media thought these Catholic neo-cons spoke for the Church. The acids of secularization came from both the left and the right, making Catholics less distinctive generally, less imbued with a Catholic imagination and culture, and more besotted by the political ideologies of their neighbors. It is, as Gerson writes, a shame. It is too much to hope that the Francis effect will change this overnight or overwhelmingly. But, I hope this pontificate will at least help everyone understand that it is the threat of libertarian ideology, which manifests itself in both parties, that Catholics must confront in our day, a confrontation that will be made easier as the Church in the US becomes more and more Latino. Here is the “distinctive mark” that Gerson is looking for that would honor our “ancient, demanding faith.”  

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