When Catholics Vote

As has been widely reported, on Oct. 7 a prominent Protestant minister, appearing at an event featuring Republican presidential hopefuls, called Mormonism a cult. But even before the controversy and media focus on Mormonism sparked by that remark, Gallup polls in 2011 found that 22 percent of Americans would not vote for a candidate they considered to be well-qualified if that candidate were a Mormon—a slight increase over previous numbers. In Pew polls, 25 percent indicated that simply being a Mormon made a candidate “less likely” to get their vote.

In 1959 the same fraction of Americans, 25 percent, said they would not support any Catholic for president. But by August 1961, a few months into the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, the figure had fallen to 13 percent. It declined to 8 percent by 1967 and has remained right about there ever since (7 percent in mid-2011).

Today, at least as measured by the polls, the bias against Catholics in the public square that seemed so iniquitous and ubiquitous when Kennedy ran for president is history. To its credit, the post-1960 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been consistent over the past half-century in rejecting rank religious chauvinism against any faith tradition and has encouraged Catholics to practice good citizenship and respect religious pluralism.

At least compared with other large religious denominations, Catholics practice the electoral ecumenism their bishops have preached. According to the Pew data, Catholics (19 percent) are less likely than Protestants (29 percent) and substantially less likely than white evangelical Christians (34 percent) to refuse to vote for a Mormon candidate. Catholics are America’s biggest bloc of swing voters because most do not vote strictly by party, ideology, occupation, race or religion.

And, as the 2012 campaign season stirs potentially divisive sentiments regarding religion in the public square, the statement “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility,” released by the U.S.C.C.B. this month, merits careful consideration, robust discussion and respectful debate by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Although most Catholics and other citizens will disagree with one or another part of it, the 45-page document, identical except for a new introduction to the bishops’ statement on the same subject four years ago in preparation for the 2008 elections, repays reading for what it offers by way of core principles regarding political engagement, the value of public service and government’s moral duty to protect the poor.

As we read in its opening sections, the document “does not offer a voters’ guide, scorecard of issues, or direction on how to vote.” Beyond the “contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype,” it avows, the church “affirms the importance of political participation and insists that public service is a worthy vocation.”

While summarizing the U.S. bishops’ moral reasoning as it applies to issues ranging from abortion and the death penalty to immigration and international aid, the document’s mini-dissertations on the ongoing “economic crisis” and an America “marred by deepening disparities between the rich and the poor” are especially timely. And its broader call for “a renewed kind of politics,” a politics “focused more on the needs of the weak than on the benefits of the strong,” is both timely and timeless.

To me at least, it is fitting that the document endorses particular anti-poverty policies and programs, including Social Security, the earned-income tax credit and food stamps. But whether the document, taken in its totality, reflects both “the social teaching of our church” and “the best traditions of our nation” is of course something on which reasonable Catholic hearts and minds are bound to differ.

That said, if any other body of U.S. religious leaders has produced a better document on political responsibility that is addressed primarily to their own co-religionists yet relevant to all Americans who care about civic engagement, I have not seen it.

But the bishops’ first order of business should be to make their flocks aware of the document. A recent poll conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that just 16 percent of U.S. Catholics had even heard of the bishops’ document four years ago.

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