Religion playing a large part in 2016 election

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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The role of religion in elections is usually fairly clear. Black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, and "nones" who do not identify with any religion, vote for Democrats. White evangelicals vote for Republicans. White Catholics have traditionally voted more Democratic than white Protestants, although in recent years the difference has narrowed to the point that white Catholics and Protestants vote Republican.

This year, the pattern seems to hold, although there is lots of complexity in the background.

The breakdown of the 2016 primary vote by religion is difficult to measure because the exit polls were only concerned about evangelicals, not Catholics. Four years ago, Catholic Republicans played a decisive role in the primaries by sticking with Romney in most of the elections, while the evangelicals bounced around among the other candidates, many of whom were Catholics. Eight years ago, Catholic Republicans helped nominate John McCain, and in the Democratic primaries, Catholics were the swing vote that could determine whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton won.

This year the media focus in the Republican primary was on evangelicals. Only a few evangelical leaders endorsed Trump before the primaries began. They were turned off by his multiple divorces, his loose life style, his casino investments, and his early support for abortion and Planned Parenthood. Their hearts and heads were with Ted Cruz and the more predictable conservative candidates.

In the early primaries, however, evangelicals ignored their leaders and voted for Trump, although people who frequently attend church were less enthusiastic. By the end of the primaries, even churchgoers were on board, and most evangelical leaders ran to catch up with their troops.

All the commentators and experts were wrong in their early predictions about Trump. Nobody thought he had a chance, and after every victory they predicted a future stumble.

How could someone who originally supported Planned Parenthood and then said women who had abortions should be punished get nominated? Not even pro-life activists say that.

How could someone who praised Russian President Putin, questioned NATO, and criticized John McCain for getting captured get nominated by Republicans? How could someone who attacked free trade, the big banks, and corporate America be nominated by the Republicans? How could a billionaire convince blue-collar workers he was their voice?

Trump, who had been a Democratic supporter in the past, smashed the Republican establishment and successfully led a coup taking over the party. And he did it with a small staff and minimal campaign spending.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, what was supposed to be a coronation turned into a fratricidal war. Again, the experts were surprised. Bernie Sanders, who was not even a Democrat a short time ago, led a revolution that came close to taking over the party and left the party split at the beginning of the convention.

For the most part, each party allowed their extreme wings to write their platforms. Republicans have language that is anti-abortion and anti-gays. The Democratic platform is the most extreme pro-choice platform ever, even calling for a repeal of the Hyde Amendment to allow federal funding of abortions.

Although the Democratic platform's progressive economic agenda will appeal to social justice Catholics, many feel that its pro-abortion plank will turn off moderate Catholics.

In truth, party platforms rarely have much impact once the convention is over except with party elites. A Pew poll shows that only 46 percent of Catholics say that abortion is very important in deciding who to vote for, while other issues get much higher percentages: economy (84 percent), terrorism (81 percent), health care (78 percent), immigration (75 percent), and foreign policy (72 percent).

For her running mate, Hillary Clinton chose Tim Kaine, a Jesuit-educated Catholic in the social justice tradition of the church. Like Joe Biden, Kaine is personally against abortion but believes that the decision should be left to the woman herself. Although this is the same position as most Americans, Kaine was attacked by both pro-choice and pro-life advocates. His past support for the Hyde Amendment is out of step with the platform, as is his support for trade agreements.

In choosing Kaine, Clinton was not looking to shore up support with the Sanders' wing of her party. Rather, she was looking to the general election. She hopes that Spanish-speaking Kaine can help get Hispanics to the polls. She also hopes that this son of a welder can connect with white working-class America who have turned to Trump after feeling abandoned by both party establishments.

Kaine and Clinton share a commitment to social justice and public service that comes out of their religious backgrounds. Clinton has been motivated all her life by her Methodist faith, while Kaine is inspired by his Jesuit education and Catholic social teaching. Even before entering politics, both worked to help the poor and the marginalized. In experience, temperament, and motivation they could not be more different than their Republican counterparts.

The parties present two starkly different platforms and sets of candidates. The election may well be determined by Catholic voters. Will Hispanic Catholics turn out to vote for Clinton in the key states that matter? Will white Catholics go to Trump in high enough percentages to counter Hillary's advantage among minorities?

By choosing Kaine, Clinton showed that she understands where the election will be decided. She also choose someone with whom she is comfortable on policy and personality -- and someone whom she thinks is capable of governing if something happened to her.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]

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