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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To read much in Catholic political commentary is to be told that there really are distinctive Catholic voters out there in America. These voters are strong on social justice and squishy on the war in Iraq. They are unambiguously opposed to abortion, but they recognize that a reverence for life requires contemplation of other issues, particularly the death penalty. They can always come up with a fitting quotation from St. Francis de Sales's Introduction to the Devout Life when they have to, and they've read most of Graham Greene's novels. They're Irish, they went to Jesuit schools, and every one of them has a sister or a cousin who was a Maryknoll nun until she resigned from the convent in 1979 and began to teach women's studies at a college in upstate New York.

These Catholic voters have been uneasily registered Democrats since they were in their cradles, and they remember with wryly embarrassed nostalgia the enormous success of the corrupt Catholic Democratic machine politics of James Michael Curley in Boston and Tammany Hall's Boss Murphy in New York.

When Ted Kennedy said in 1996 that he remembered "'Help Wanted' signs in stores when I was growing up saying 'No Irish Need Apply'"--despite the fact that he was born to wealth in 1932--it mostly proved just how long an urban legend can last. But all these Catholic voters do genuinely have a sense of themselves as something of the underdog in American public life. They remember why Catholics had to build their own social institutions--schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, and all the rest--and they remember that these institutions were constucted not with dollars from millionaires but with pennies and nickels from women who spent their days on their knees scrubbing floors for the Protestant upper classes.

American Catholic voters are liberal about government in a way no economic or evangelical conservative can understand, and conservative about morals in a way no socialist or New Age liberal can grasp. They were pro-labor and anti-Communist when both those things really counted, and they remain committed to the possibility of applying the intellectual and ethical fruits of their faith to the messy life of politics.

ONE FURTHER THING needs to be said about these Catholic voters: They don't actually exist. Maybe they never did, at least in the ideal type sketched by Catholic political writers, but certainly we haven't seen many of them since the 1950s. Indeed, by every statistical measure, Catholics are indistinguishable from other voters in the American political scene.

Not that you could glean this from the newspapers. Last week, joining the obsession with Catholicism, the Wall Street Journal declared, "If you are looking for a good political indicator, look no further than America's Catholics. The Catholic vote has gone to the popular winner in every presidential election since 1972." You might as well say the American vote has gone to the popular winner since 1972. Far from proving the importance of the Catholic vote, the Wall Street Journal conveyed the hidden truth: Catholics vote like everybody else, and they live like everybody else. Their distinctive urban political stance long ago disappeared--as everyone's eventually does--in the crabgrass frontier of suburbia.

THE STATISTICS gathered by George Marlin in The American Catholic Voter, particularly when combined with the QEV Analytics work that Steven Wagner did for Crisis magazine a few years ago and polling this spring from the Pew Forum, are unambiguous, though most of the pollsters squirm and wriggle to explain the conclusion away.

So, for instance, the Pew statistics show Catholics tracking at 41 percent Republican to 44 percent Democrat, a figure easily in line with the national average of 38 percent Republican to 42 percent Democrat, particularly when you remove from the calculation the overwhelmingly Protestant and Democratic African Americans--who vote as an old-fashioned ethnic group, the way the Irish used to do.

The usual device for slicing the data to deny this conclusion is to point out a distinction between Mass-attending Catholics and what used to be called "cultural Catholics" or "smorgasbord Catholics." Analyzing the results of an August 10 poll, the Gallup pollsters wrote, "Comprising about 25 percent of the population, Catholics have been a key swing group in U.S. presidential elections for the past three decades. Currently, Catholic voters overall show a preference for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and have done so since late May, after tending to support President George W. Bush earlier in the year."