If abortion is the key Catholic issue in American politics, then you can’t say Catholicism has exactly disappeared from the 2010 election. “Abortion, birth control are wedge issues in governor’s race,” ran the headline in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Schneiderman Continues To Make Abortion Case,” added the New York Observer. “Ohio anti-abortion Democrats take flak over vote on health care bill,” reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Will Social Conservatives Derail the Tea Party?” asked AOL News.
Still, White House senior adviser David Axelrod was widely mocked when he announced on September 27 that abortion would “certainly be an issue” for the Democrats this campaign cycle—a topic they would be raising again and again “across the country.” As Peggy Noonan noted in the Wall Street Journal, “This suggests a certain desperation. Whatever stand you take on the social issues, you have to be blind to think they will make a big difference this year.” The actual Democratic candidates seemed to agree. A month later, Axelrod’s effort to raise the abortion issue has faded away.
The question for conservatives is whether this means that the pro-life vote, too, has faded. Noonan is surely right that, among likely voters, the economic issues are foremost: They fill the public square, and it’s hard to get a sense of what else, if anything, is still on people’s minds.
Here’s a clue, however. Out in Ohio, Representative Steve Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission against Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, in an effort to get her to stop buying advertising that said he had voted for “taxpayer-funded abortion” when he voted for Obamacare. Not that it’s likely to do him much good. The polls show Driehaus badly trailing his challenger, former seven-term Republican congressman Steve Chabot. For that matter, Driehaus did vote for taxpayer-funded abortion by voting for the health care bill. But the complaint Driehaus filed suggests there’s still a certain political salience, out in the Heartland, to the pro-life cause.
And here’s another clue. You start adding up likely GOP gains in the House—Adam Kinzinger bringing down Debbie Halvorson in Illinois 11, for example, and Daniel Webster defeating Alan Grayson in Florida 8—and you find that the trend runs overwhelmingly in a pro-life direction. If the Republicans gain 50 congressional seats in this election, they will be sending to Washington, by my count, at least 40 solid pro-life representatives. These candidates aren’t campaigning on abortion, but neither are they hiding their pro-life stands.
Listen, for example, to New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s almost off-hand responses to abortion questions he receives: He answers that of course he’s pro-life, then promptly returns the discussion to economic issues. It’s no accident that the single most widely reported battle over the health care bill concerned governmental funding of abortion. Pro-life views have become so standard for the new generation of Republican candidates that they’re almost the background noise: the default position that can be assumed.
In this, the politicians are only matching their voters. According to a Public Religion Research Institute poll in early October, 69 percent of conservative Christian voters are strongly pro-life—and so are 63 percent of self-identified Tea Party members. The social conservatives of 2000, the “values voters” of 2004, the Palin enthusiasts of 2008, and the Tea Partiers of 2010: They’re proving to be the same people, and if the economic issues are foremost in their minds right now, that doesn’t mean the social issues have gone away.
Nor does it mean that their framing of the social issues has much changed. But to understand that part, you have to grasp the way the Catholic articulation of certain public issues has come to dominate conservative thought—even while Catholics themselves have ceased to be any kind of distinct voting bloc.
It’s peculiar, the political invisibility of Catholic voters. More than 68 million of them live in the United States, well over 20 percent of the population, and their vote is becoming indistinguishable from the nation’s. “The Catholic vote has gone to the popular winner in every presidential election since 1972,” noted the Wall Street Journal. So has the general vote. Catholics behave at the polls just like everyone else.
Some commentators still identify Catholics as an important swing group, but the figures don’t quite show it. According to the Pew Forum, in 2000 Gore got 50 percent of the Catholic vote and Bush 47—while the total for all voters was Gore at 48.4 percent and Bush at 47.9. In 2004 Bush defeated Kerry 52 to 47 percent among Catholics, and 51 to 48 among all voters. In 2008 Obama beat McCain 54 to 45 percent among Catholics, and 53 to 46 in the general population. These differences are small, and they suggest, if anything, that Catholics don’t swing elections; they get swung by those elections—moving a fraction more than other groups toward the national choice.
Which is not to deny the distinctiveness of Catholicism—the Catholic system of thought. Elections, in one sense, involve nothing more than the attempt to translate moral authority into political power, and the Catholic hierarchy has little moral authority left on the national scene. After the priest scandals and the constant attack from the nation’s press, the Catholic church as an institution is weaker now than anytime since the great waves of Catholic immigration in the 1880s first brought it real power in America.
The major role, perhaps the only role, that Catholicism genuinely plays on the American stage anymore is as a source of the vocabulary for phrasing moral issues. If you had to describe a typical member of the new generation of Republican candidates, it would be a former military officer, now a local businessman, who attends a center-right Evangelical church and never ran for public office before. Which makes it all the more astonishing that, typically, he speaks the Catholic language of moral issues so seamlessly and well.
Sanctity of life, just-war theory, natural law, dignity of the person: It has become the single viable vocabulary these days for expressing moral concepts in a secular space. Call it the John Courtney Murray project, after the Jesuit priest whose essays in the 1950s exercised so much influence on the liberalizing reflections about democracy at the Second Vatican Council.
Indeed, it was the genius of a handful of modern Catholic writers—laymen, mostly, from Michael Novak to Robert P. George—to take what, circa 1959, was a liberal Catholic idea and turn it into a mainstay of contemporary conservatism—though its effect was primarily on Protestants. The horrified fascination of, say, the New York Times with all things Catholic isn’t caused by worry about the religious authority of bishops or some monolithic Catholic voting bloc. It concerns the political left’s desire to discredit Catholicism as an influence on secular thought.
Catholic voters this year will likely break the way the rest of the nation breaks: Hispanic Catholics in one direction, white ethnic Catholics in another; Southern Catholics trending one way, Northern Catholics a slightly different way. Just drop the word Catholic, and you’ll have a reasonable idea where their votes will go. And in the remaining days of the campaign, the Catholic church itself will surely be attacked for even the least gesture of interest in the issues of the campaign, though none of that will actually matter politically.
But the vocabulary of Catholicism, that way of bringing religiously grounded moral claims into the public square, and doing so nonreligiously: It’s simply here in American electoral politics. Here in 2010, and for a good long while to come.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.