The Magazine

The Myth of the Catholic Voter

From the November 1 / November 8, 2004 issue: The media are obsessed with the Catholic vote, the Catholic bishops, and the Catholic influence on the election. Is there any there, there?

Nov 1, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 08 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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The American Catholic Voter

Two Hundred Years of Political Impact

by George Marlin

St. Augustine's, 420 pp., $30

THERE'S MUCH TO BE SAID about American Catholic voters today, which is probably why so much is being said about them. The average citizen might be forgiven for thinking we've returned to the time of Jack Kennedy, when Catholics rose up to claim the presidency for the first time--or maybe to the era of the nineteenth-century Know-Nothings, when Catholics seemed a stain of Irish ignorance and Italian superstition spreading across the land. All this year, the nation's media have been obsessed with the Catholic vote, the Catholic bishops, and the Catholic influence on the November presidential election.

So, for example, early in the campaign, America's newspapers--a group of publications not famous for their interest or competence in the delicacies of scholastic theology--ran article after article on the complicated pastoral question of whether Catholic bishops should refuse communion to politicians who support abortion.

And the topic is still around at the end of the race. During the second presidential debate, John Kerry explicitly mentioned his Catholicism. He used to be "an altar boy," he pointed out in a boast that hasn't been heard in American politics for some time. Things got a little peculiar when Kerry went on to use this mention of his boyhood Catholicism to explain both why he is personally opposed to abortion and why he supports public funding for it, but the point remains: Even the candidates are convinced there's Catholic pressure on the election that must be either exploited or calmed down.

Exploited seems the choice of the moment. "Never before have so many bishops so explicitly warned Catholics so close to an election that to vote a certain way was to commit a sin," the New York Times darkly warned this month. It was a statement about as historically inaccurate as things are allowed to get before even copy editors roll their eyes in disbelief. Does the Times know nothing of the elections of, say, the 1840s--or Al Smith's campaign in 1928 or John Kennedy's in 1960, for that matter?

But the line is typical of the chattering class's sense that Catholicism is somehow what's roiling the presidential race, and that warnings about malignant Catholic influence are necessary to reinspire the anti-Bush electoral base. The candidate of that base happens to be a Catholic, of course, and in the tangle by which left-wing anti-Catholics ended up with a Catholic candidate to oppose a Born-Again Protestant who once gave a speech at the right-wing anti-Catholic Bob Jones University, we have a superb instance of just how difficult to navigate the intersection of American politics and American religion can be. The Times has run three more pieces about Catholic politics on its op-ed pages in the last month, including one, to the newspaper's credit, by Denver's Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, responding to the attacks of the previous articles.

Meanwhile, we've had Catholic voter websites from the Republicans' KerryWrongForCatholics.com to the Democrats' run of nearly identically named sites: KerryCatholics.com, CatholicsForKerry04.org, and CatholicsForKerry.net. We've seen rival voter guides battling each other in the parishes, the liberal National Catholic Reporter and the New York Times gleefully exposing the sexual transgressions of the Bush-supporting editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, and a seemingly endless parade of polls about Catholics from Zogby to Gallup to the Pew Forum.

GEORGE MARLIN'S NEW BOOK, The American Catholic Voter, is the most significant recent publication on the subject. As a historical study, the volume is a political junkie's dream, collecting in four hundred well-written pages a quick but solid analysis of every important Catholic moment in American political history, from the impact of the Carroll family of Maryland during the 1770s, to the Democratic party's brilliant memorandum on the electability of Catholic politicians in the 1950s, and down to our own peculiar situation in the midst of the 2004 presidential campaign. Little-known anecdotes, helpful statistics, and an excellent sense of the flow of American politics over the last two hundred and fifty years combine in Marlin's superb book to show that the Catholic vote in America remains . . . um, well, maybe just remains. I can't for the life of me figure out what it all proves.