Thomas Reese, SJ and Peter Steinels both conclude that in the aftermath of Tuesday’s elections results, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ political prestige suffered greatly, not least because the very pro-choice Barack Obama won a majority among Catholic voters. Fr. Reese said the bishops’ “episcopal authority took a major hit,” while Steinfels declared the bishops to be one of the night’s “big losers.” Without getting into the merits of whether the bishops should prioritize certain issues, I think their conclusion is overstated.
For one thing, Fr. Reese and Steinfels imply that abortion was the lone issue this election on which the bishops sought to influence the votes of the laity. In fact, the legalization of homosexual marriage was another issue this fall, and the bishops’ influence seems to have been felt at the polls.
A good example was Proposition 8 in California, a constitutional measure that sought to overturn the state Supreme Court’s decision in favor of same-sex marriage. Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Field Poll, the state’s most respected poll, noted that Catholics voted heavily for Prop. 8 not only in terms of percentage but also in numbers:
When comparing the findings from The Field Poll’s final pre-election survey of likely voters (n-966) to the Edison Media Research exit poll in California, the biggest differences relate to the turnout and preferences of frequent church-goers and Catholics. The Field Poll, completed one week before the election, had Catholics voting at about their registered voter population size (24% of the electorate) with voting preferences similar to those of the overall electorate, with 44% on the Yes side. However the network exit poll shows that they accounted for 30% of the CA electorate and had 64% of them voting Yes. Regular churchgoers showed a similar movement toward the Yes side. The pre-election Field Poll showed 72% of these voters voting Yes, while the exit poll showed that 84% of them voted Yes.
The same kind of phenomenon occurred when the first same-sex marriage ban was voted in California in the March 2000 election (Prop. 22), although because of the size of its victory( 61% Yes vs. 39% No) it didn’t matter much back then. In that year The Field Poll’s final pre-election poll, also completed about one week prior to the election, had 50% of Catholics on the Yes side, and accounting for 24% of the vote. Yet, the network exit poll conducted that year by Voter News Service showed them to account for 26% of the electorate with 62% voting Yes.
My take is that polling on issues like same-sex marriage that have a direct bearing on religious doctrine can be affected in a big way in the final weekend by last minute appeals by the clergy and religious organizations.
How much the bishops influenced the outcome is difficult to say. For all of the talk about the Bradley effect, there also seems to be what might be called a Gay-Marriage effect – a reluctance by voters to tell pollsters that they oppose same-sex marriage. So it is fair to conclude that some Catholics were unwilling to state their preference for traditional marriage but vote for it in the ballot booth. And I cannot determine whether any of the state’s bishops’ mandated that statements in favor of Prop. 8 be read at Mass the weekend before the election; for what it is worth, my parents heard a sermon against gay marriage at their parish in the Bay Area. Yet Catholic bishops did more than the minimum in favor of Prop 8: issue statements and put out position papers. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops donated $200,000 to the major group in favor of Prop. 8. The state’s bishops also made a competent video in support of the measure, which I can no longer find on YouTube.
For another thing, Fr. Reese and Steinfels’ conclusion that the bishops didn’t influence the presidential vote is surely too sweeping. It is true enough that a majority of Catholic voters went for Barack Obama, an unwavering supporter of abortion rights; and that dozens of bishops implied that Catholics should do no such thing. But this dynamic seems to have been exclusive to the big cities and suburbs, a large majority of the electorate admittedly. It does not seem to have applied to small towns and rural areas, including those in the North. Mark Silk’s state-by-state breakdown of the Catholic vote seems to support this conclusion.
Westmoreland County in western Pennsylvania is another good example. Besides a 2-to-1 registration favor of Democrats, the county had except for 1972 voted for a Democratic presidential nominee from the New Deal until 1996. But that changed. As I wrote in Why the Democrats are Blue, the dioceses’ bishops in the past eight years have been vocal in their criticism of pro-choice Democratic presidential nominees. If the county’s Democratic chairwoman is to be believed, their words affected the county’s Catholics. The county voted for George W. Bush twice and heavily for John McCain (57-41) on Tuesday.
Still, Fr. Reese and Steinfels are surely correct to conclude that as a rule, the bishops cannot expect the laity to follow in lockstep with their political wishes. I plan to write about that topic at another date. But for now, let’s have a more balanced assessment of the bishops’ political strengths and weaknesses.