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There Is No Catholic Vote

But on social policy, everyone now speaks Catholic.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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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.

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