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
And yet, in mid-October, the Catholic-convert Robert Novak used his nationally syndicated column to point out a drift of Catholics back to Bush--which all sounds exactly like the nation in general: Bush strongly in the lead early in the year, Kerry then slightly in the lead until August, Bush surging well ahead in September, Kerry gaining after the debates, Bush returning to a slight lead by the end of October. If that's how Catholics are polling, what distinguishes them from the rest of America?
Polls from the Barna Research Group had Kerry leading Bush among Catholics 48 to 43 percent in May, and down among Catholics 36 to 53 percent at the end of September. Both those results seem exaggerated--outliers when compared with other polls (although a Pew poll from the same week had Kerry down 39 to 49 percent among white Catholic registered voters). In their drift, however, the figures do not prove the "seismic shift" Barna claimed to find in the Catholic vote. They merely track the general movement in the national polls. Catholic voters followed the national averages in 2000, favoring Gore over Bush by a slim 48.4 to 47.9 percent, and little seems to have changed.
But the Gallup analysis went on to make a now commonplace distinction: "Catholics themselves are divided in their candidate support, as those who attend church on a weekly basis tend to support Bush, while those who attend church less often--especially those who rarely attend--show stronger support for Kerry."
This surely seems right. When I spoke to him last week, Steven Wagner pointed out that almost no other Americans--not even non-practicing Jews--continue to identify themselves by religion after they've stopped practicing their religion. And if we separate out those who actually go to Mass once a week or more from those who tell pollsters that they're Catholic, when what they actually mean is that their grandmothers were Irish, we appear to have a solid Catholic voting bloc left over.
This Mass-attending group have shown since 1960, in Wagner's analysis, a willingness to call themselves Republicans and identify themselves as conservative--neither of which was remotely true, as Marlin points out, in 1888 or 1928 or 1960. And this, indeed, does seem a serious change (although no more of one, perhaps, than that which saw active mainline Protestants outside the South shift their allegiance in the same period from the Republicans to the Democrats).
But it is a shift only to the place where the rest of the nation is. The sum of all Catholic voters, active and inactive alike, is indistinguishable from the general population of American voters. And the Catholic voters who go to church once a week or more are indistinguishable from the population of all American voters who go to church once a week or more.
The Pew data consistently show active Catholics falling precisely between active evangelicals and active mainline Protestants in their views and voting patterns. On a few issues--abortion, a public role for religion, and school vouchers--Catholics more closely track evangelicals. On a few other issues--government spending and welfare, in particular--Catholics tend to match mainline Protestants.
BUT A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, narrowed down to two candidates, limits the opportunities to express these slight differences. And when you add up the 26 percent of the population who are active evangelicals, the 16 percent who are active mainline Protestants, and the 17 percent who are active Catholics--and throw in the active Latino Catholics (4.5 percent of the population and 61 percent Democrat) and actively Protestant African Americans (9.6 percent of the population and 71 percent Democrat)--you find that you hardly need to calculate the Catholic vote at all.
By party affiliation, religiously active Americans are 42 percent Republican and 44 percent Democrat (in averages calculated from the Pew data), which precisely matches the figures for Catholic party identification. By likely vote in the 2004 presidential election (this is a clearly corrupt figure I arrived at by averaging diverse and incommensurate polls, but it may be helpful for pointing out the basic fact) active Catholics seem to be supporting Bush over Kerry by around 49 to 40 percent, which mirrors the results for all religiously active Christians in America.
What all this means is that there is no purely Catholic vote in America today. And if, with this in mind, we look back at the history Marlin gathers in The American Catholic Voter, we begin to sense that there may never have been a Catholic electoral identity. Catholics voted for Catholic candidates not out of ideology but out of ethnic solidarity. The urban analyst Fred Siegel insisted, in a phone interview a few weeks ago, that the long Catholic presence in America's East Coast cities profoundly influenced--and continues to influence--the politics of places like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. And it may well be true. But however strong, the effect seems secondary.
Catholics delivered solid voting blocs, usually for Democrats, not because they were Catholic believers but because their mothers were Irish, Italian, Slavic, German, and Polish Catholics, and because only in ethnic solidarity could they force their way into an unwelcoming American political scene. Their religious belief may have had real political effects, but it wasn't the cause, and when the need for ethnic solidarity began to slip away during the 1950s and 1960s--Edwin O'Connor's The Last Hurrah is the great fictional treatment of this moment--so did the Catholic identity in American politics.
THE QUESTION REMAINS whether there should be a distinctly Catholic political identity. A few years ago, for my sins, I attended a conference at Georgetown University about the state of Catholicism in America.
The opening debate between the New York Times's Peter Steinfels and First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus was instructive about the clash between liberal and conservative Catholics--although no divisions in contemporary Catholicism are really as tidy as all that: There still exist remnants of Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement who view the liberal Steinfels as an amiable fascist, and communes of Latin Mass advocates who see the conservative Neuhaus as a sentimental socialist, and a host of other tiny Catholic intellectual groups who generally treat American political reality as a poor man's banquet at which they can nibble only a little off others' tables.
Still, the argument between Steinfels and Neuhaus was sufficient to lay out the main differences between the ways Democratic-leaning Catholics and Republican-leaning Catholics view their somewhat depressing situation. It wasn't till the second day's debate, between Michael Novak and Monica Helwig, that a truly palpable gloom settled over the room. For the neoconservative Novak and the feminist Helwig have had this debate so many times, over so many years, that they began to squabble like an old couple locked in a bickering marriage: forgotten occasions suddenly remembered, dead quarrels fanned back to flame, exhausted casus belli revived, until we seemed to be back in that strife-torn hall at the 1976 Call to Action conference in Detroit, the low point in post-Vatican II American Catholic unity--nothing learned, nothing gained, nothing advanced in more than twenty-five years.
That feeling was a little unfair to Helwig, and very unfair to Novak, who has done important work on religion, capitalism, and human rights over the long years since Detroit. Even more, the feeling was unfair to Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa, and the new Catechism, and everything that has changed since the confusion that followed Vatican II.
We have witnessed over the last quarter-century what the papal biographer George Weigel calls "the maturation of Catholic social thought," although that phrase seems slightly wrong--suggesting that, say, Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical on the working classes, Rerum Novarum, was a childish production. But Weigel is surely right that Catholic thinking on these topics has turned, in its slow, ponderous way, to accept the social goods of the modern world and to present clear arguments about how they might be turned to a greater good.
With his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul II wrote what is by any objective standard the most pro-American document ever to come out of Rome, embracing the social possibilities of democratic capitalism. With his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, he wrote what is by any objective standard the most anti-American document from Rome, denouncing the "culture of death" that has turned its back on reverence for life. And with the combination of these two encyclicals--and the theological and philosophical foundation provided in his other works, from the 1979 Redemptor Hominis to the 2003 Ecclesia de Eucharistia--the pope has developed Catholic social thought to such an extent that it fits in those tired political categories the way a tornado fits in a teacup.
UNFORTUNATELY, you'd hardly know it from the manner in which Catholicism plays on the American public scene. In some ways, there has never been a time when Catholic phrasings and forms of thought have so dominated our political discussions. Isn't there something peculiar when even the most hard-nosed advocates of welfare reform cast their arguments in terms of what they claim will help the poor climb out of poverty? Nobody seems to argue these days the old, anti-Catholic Social Darwinist line that the possibility of social winners requires the existence of social losers.
For that matter, isn't there something odd when the common liberal accusation against conservatives--as hypocrites who are against abortion and for the death penalty--simply accepts the Catholic linking of these topics?
And isn't there something curious, something new in American discourse, when the public arguments about the preparation for war in Iraq were conducted entirely in terms of just-war theory? That used to be thought something eccentric and parochial that Catholics had to do to convince themselves to participate in the battles of non-Catholic countries. Now it's how most of America talks about war.
In other ways, however, there has never been a time when Catholicism mattered less in America. In 1960, Mass-attending Catholics gave John Kennedy 87 percent of their vote, but Catholics haven't been able to achieve that kind of electoral unity for a long time. And as their ability to deliver votes declined--or, at least, as political analysts' belief in the Catholic vote declined (since Marlin demonstrates that Catholics were never quite as monolithic as popular imagination supposes them)--the bishops have had for many years only Catholicism's intellectual and moral prestige with which to try to persuade politicians.
The intellectual terms triumphed to a surprising degree. But the moral authority vanished overnight in the priest pedophilia scandals. On December 1, 2001, the Catholic Church was at the front of the fight against cloning. Two months later, by February 1, 2002, the Catholic Church had essentially disappeared from the battle. In the middle of the campaign to force Tom Daschle, then majority leader, to allow an anti-cloning bill to come to the floor of the Senate, one major metropolitan bishop told me he didn't dare lobby his senators on the issue--for fear they would answer, "Who the hell are you to lecture me on a moral issue?" and rupture their relationship forever.
Twenty-five years of the prestige built up by John Paul II and Mother Teresa swirled away in an instant. And at every moment since, whenever the bishops have tried to intrude on public affairs, there has been someone ready to remind us of their sins. When Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput demanded this October that Catholics vote against pro-abortion politicians, Maureen Dowd immediately used her column in the New York Times to denounce "the shepherds of a Church whose hierarchy bungled the molestation and rape of so many young boys by tolerating it, covering it up, enabling it, excusing it, and paying hush money" for daring to debate "whether John Kerry should be allowed to receive communion."
DOWD IS A GOOD EXAMPLE of the kind of American Catholic--left and right alike, although mostly middle-left--whose application of Catholic thought to political reality is still mired in the 1970s. Or perhaps I mean this the other way around: There are a number of American Catholic writers whose current political views seek justification and support in decades-old Catholic categories; the issues change from year to year, but the analysis always treads the same, old, muddy ground.
On October 11, for instance, Mark Roche, a dean at Notre Dame, was granted space in the New York Times to claim, "History will judge our society's support of abortion in much the same way we view earlier generations' support of torture and slavery." But Roche went on to extend this astonishing (for the op-ed pages of the New York Times) claim into an argument that Catholics ought to vote for John Kerry, the senator with possibly the worst record on pro-life issues in American politics, because . . . well, it hardly seems worth the bother of rehearsing the becauses.
If at any time since 1976 you've had the misfortune to attend a Catholic seminar, or read a statement from the American Catholic bishops' conference, or listen to Mario Cuomo speak, you know that Roche would insist that the "death penalty, universal health care, and environmental protection" form equal parts of a seamless garment of life with abortion; you've heard that conservatives are right on only one Catholic issue while liberals are right on all the rest; and you've been instructed that only the Democrats can be trusted to care for the poor, because Republicans are rats on all the deepest "socioeconomic" issues: "equitable taxes and greater integration into the world community," to cite a pair of Roche's overly familiar examples.
One can answer all this, of course. Princeton's Robert George and Notre Dame's Gerald Bradley did a good job of rebuking Dean Roche on the National Review website, for instance. But in every attempt to answer, there is a temptation--perhaps even a necessity--to be sucked back down into the terms of the 1970s one more time.
CATHOLICS are hardly unique in this. To a large degree it is our universal condition: All of America's social argument is still caught in the 1970s. The marchers in peace parades are redolent of Vietnam activism circa 1972--in both how they see the war in Iraq and how they see themselves. At a rally in 2003, Hunter S. Thompson declared, "I've become almost homesick for the smell of tear gas," and the gathered antiwar crowd erupted in cheers. The fact that they are not actually being tear-gassed only makes the nostalgia easier.
For that matter, the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision still grinds us through its wheels. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that everything in American politics has to do with abortion. The categories of the 1970s have only hardened with time. You might have expected Catholics to exercise some leavening influence within the Democratic party, but they've never really managed it. The pro-life position has waxed and waned in the Republican party, falling in 1992 and 1996, and rising in 2000, but the Democrats have become--at least since the Clintons banned Pennsylvania's pro-life Democratic governor Robert Casey from the dais at the 1992 convention--entirely the party of support for abortion.
A surprisingly consistent history of Democratic politicians over the last three decades has been their gradual trading of pro-life positions in exchange for national prominence. Think of Al Gore and Richard Gephardt and Jesse Jackson and a parade of others, culminating in the hapless Dennis Kucinich, whose first act even as a protest presidential candidate with no real chance in the Democratic primaries last year was to renounce his previously staunch antiabortion position. In 1978, Tom Daschle had the nuns who taught him in grade school write a letter to voters in South Dakota swearing he would always fight against abortion. By 2002, he was penning fundraising letters for NARAL and giving fundraising talks for EMILY's List.
Catholics form the largest religious denomination among elected officials in America, but the Church's pro-life agenda would be more successfully advanced if those Catholic officeholders were all replaced tomorrow by Mormons or Muslims. In 2003, a newspaper advertisement designated twelve influential Democratic senators--Kennedy, Harkin, Kerry, Daschle, Dodd, Collins, Reed, Murray, Landrieu, Leahy, Mikulski, and Biden--as the "deadly dozen": openly pro-abortion Catholics.
AND YET, the failure to maintain a distinctively Catholic presence in the Democratic party goes back much further. Such figures as Sargent and Eunice Shriver, Richard Daley, Eugene McCarthy, and Daniel Moynihan were not nobodies in their party; they were grown-ups, and they could have resisted. But they let it slide. They let Mario Cuomo's formulation of "personally opposed but publicly supportive" become the abortion mantra of Catholic Democrats, and they allowed a distinct Catholic position in the party to close around them.
In 1998, during the early days of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, it looked for a moment as though there would be an identifiably Catholic reaction. In the National Journal, William Powers suggested a Catholic "media mafia" was out to get the president. From Eric Alterman's denunciation of "moral absolutism" in the Nation to the anti-Clinton schadenfreude of the American Spectator, the reactions to Clinton's behavior broke fairly solidly along party lines--except, Powers noted, among a set of generally liberal Catholic television and newspaper commentators.
Maureen Dowd, Michael Kelly, and Chris Matthews were perhaps the most censorious. But also in the hunt were Tim Russert, Mary McGrory, Mark Shields, Cokie Roberts, and even Gary Wills. And yet, by the time the impeachment hearings rolled around, nearly all these figures--Maureen Dowd, most visibly--had shifted back to the standard party line of defending the president. The question of Clinton's behavior got translated into a culture-wars issue, and the options narrowed to business as usual.
Add it all up, and it's hard to see any place that Catholicism makes a difference in American political life. In the ballots Catholic voters cast, in the positions Catholic politicians take, in the pieces Catholic writers publish--in what Catholics do, and what they fail to do--they are ordinary Republicans and Democrats; their faith seems invisible. They are utterly indistinguishable from the general run of citizens. In his famous talk to Protestant ministers in Houston during the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy said he didn't want to be a Catholic president; he wanted instead to be a president who happened to be Catholic. Catholicism in America seems to have since become entirely a Church of little John Kennedys.
SO WHY IS EVERYONE from the New York Times to the Republican National Committee so worked up about it all? The answer in part derives from the very fact that makes active Catholics invisible among the general population of active Christians in America: Like African Americans today, Catholics were once an ethnic group with strongly conservative social feelings who could nonetheless be counted upon to deny much of their vote to conservatives. Catholics are supposed to be Democrats--some of the most myth-inspiring figures of American political history demand it--and if their votes are the same as the evangelicals', then the Democrats have lost an ethnic group they once took for granted, and they must contend for Catholics' votes in the ideological battles of the day.
More, the growing unity of traditionalist Catholics and antimodernist evangelicals represents a profound change in American political reality. This really is a seismic shift. Catholics have always tended to exaggerate a little the extent to which they were oppressed by the mainstream culture when they arrived in America, but the fact remains that a minor but consistent motor of American history has been the antagonism of Protestants for Catholics. Among the religiously casual, that antagonism gradually disappeared in the impossibility of distinguishing religiously one suburbanite from another. And among the religiously serious, the old, sweated hatreds vanished in the common cause made in the fight against abortion since the 1970s and a shared perception among the religious of all kinds that the elite culture despises them equally.
In other words, something very strange has happened in the United States. We might call it the emergence of "mere religion," after C.S. Lewis's phrase for shared Christian belief, "mere Christianity." There has appeared, in one of the most unlikely developments in American cultural history, a horizontal unity that seems to cut across the vertical divisions of the old jarring sects. A Presbyterian, say, with strongly orthodox views now typically feels more solidarity with an orthodox Lutheran or Catholic or even Jew than he does with the non-orthodox of his own denomination.
The Republicans were slow to grasp this fact--as George W. Bush's visit to the old-fashionedly anti-Catholic Bob Jones University during the 2000 Republican primaries, and his apparent reliance on the ex-Texas evangelical Deal Hudson for Catholic outreach both proved. The GOP was gaining an increasing number of Catholic votes from the 1950s on. Marlin traces, in particular, the ethnic Catholic votes against McGovern in 1972 and for Reagan in 1980. But even the Reaganite Republican activists were badly tone-deaf about Catholic language, and they couldn't be trusted to speak to even friendly Catholic audiences without one verbal gaffe or another.
Bit by bit, however, the Republicans have managed to form a Catholic vocabulary. Such Catholic politicians as William Simon, Henry Hyde, and Rick Santorum helped give the Republicans a nihil obstat, as did the surprisingly successful attempts of such Catholic neoconservatives as Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel to educate evangelicals in how to speak Catholic.
It used to be that no Democrat needed to learn this stuff; they spoke it from the time they first started hanging around the alderman's office as teenagers. Sargent Shriver, Eugene McCarthy, and Bobby Kennedy all carried around with them a tame Catholic intellectual to help them thicken their speeches with Vaticanized references.
But in the long years since, the Democrats have forgotten how to talk this language. It isn't just that every national Democrat has to perform an impossible squiggle on abortion when talking to practicing Catholics. Even the Catholics among Democratic politicians can't seem to remember how it goes. Asked by a reporter about his Catholic detractors during Holy Week this year, Kerry replied,
Are they the same legislators who vote for the death penalty, which is in contravention of Catholic teaching? . . . I'm not a Church spokesman. I'm a legislator running for president. My oath is to uphold the Constitution of the United States in my public life. My oath privately between me and God was defined in the Catholic Church by Pius XXIII and Pope Paul VI in the Vatican II, which allows for freedom of conscience for Catholics with respect to these choices, and that is exactly where I am. And it is separate. Our Constitution separates church and state, and they should be reminded of that.
Even the New York Times felt it necessary to gloss this with the note: "Mr. Kerry apparently meant John XXIII, as there is no Pius XXIII." And the tone-deafness of saying "the Vatican II" for Vatican II, like Kerry's garbled talking points of forty years' worth of answers from Catholic politicians to similar questions, only managed to make even his own Catholic supporters cringe.
The fact that Catholic voters are invisible feels wrong to me, somehow--a theological error, a philosophical mistake. The uniqueness of the Catholic vote wants to be true, if only because American history and intellectual consistency alike seem to demand that being Catholic make a difference in how one behaves in the public square.
But accurate political analysis, like well-directed pastoral teaching, needs to begin with the truth: The Catholic voter is, alas, a myth.
Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.