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Robert David SullivanOctober 15, 2014

Fifty years ago this fall, the Democrats won their highest percentage ever in a presidential election, and Catholics formed the party’s bedrock constituency. Still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Catholics voted for his successor, Lyndon Johnson, by a margin of three to one (76 percent to 24 percent, according to Gallup). This was not quite as high as Kennedy’s margin, but Catholics became more powerful than ever in the Democratic Party, since the almost universally Protestant “Solid South” was in the process of breaking away from a party it once dominated. With big majorities in Congress as well as the presidency, a Democratic Party that united racial and religious minorities (African-Americans and Jews as well as Catholics) had an opportunity to reshape American life.

The United States did change quite a bit over the next decade, but the Democratic coalition fell apart with the very next presidential election, and the Catholic bloc eventually fractured for good. In 2012, Gallup estimated the Catholic vote at 49 to 48 Democratic, and most other polls showed Catholics giving Barack Obama a margin no bigger than his four-point lead nationwide. In 1965, according to “Vital Statistics on Congress,” a joint effort from the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, 93 of the 108 Catholic members of Congress were Democratic. In 2013, the caucus was much larger, but more divided. This time, 93 (yes, the same number) of 163 Catholic members were Democratic.

It is still tempting to generalize about American Catholics, who make up about one-quarter of the national population. This past May, The New York Times ran an article on the rarity of women governors in the Northeast that included this explanation: “Beyond the region’s political culture, the states’ demography has also traditionally worked against women. ‘They are older, with a blue-collar electorate in an industrial economy and a heavy Catholic population,’ said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.”

This was a cheap shot, since the article included no evidence that Catholics are less likely to vote for women. More often, there are stories like the one in Politico that ran after Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan, a Catholic, as his running mate in 2012. The choice “all but guarantees a fierce election-year fight for the affections of Catholic voters,” wrote James Hohmann. But his story actually illustrated a split among Catholic voters (some emphasizing “social” issues, others talking about “social justice”) that would persist whatever the two major candidates did.

Indeed, most polls show Catholics are now close to the national average in their voting habits and in their views on major issues. “The Catholic vote tends to mirror the national vote, uncannily so,” wrote Gerald F. Seib, of The Wall Street Journal, in a March story on a meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis. Perhaps “uncannily” implies an unwarranted surprise at that fact. “Catholics are remarkably—and I mean really remarkably—average across major demographic categories,” wrote Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, in a blog post in 2013 citing data on age, educational attainment, family income and party identification (30 percent Democratic, 25 percent Republican and 36 percent independent). The one exception was that 29 percent of Catholics claimed Hispanic heritage, compared with 13 percent of all Americans.

Losing Catholics

Polling data suggests that the political fault line in 2014 is not between Protestants and Catholics, but between frequent churchgoers and less committed adherents of all religions. A survey in August by Marquette University of the Wisconsin electorate (who will decide whether to re-elect Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, this fall) found no significant difference between Catholic and Protestant respondents on most matters: 39 percent of Catholics and 38 percent of Protestants approved of President Obama’s job performance, while 33 percent of Catholics and 36 percent of Protestants had a favorable view of the Tea Party. Forty-nine percent of Catholics and 53 percent of Protestants favored raising the minimum wage, and the Affordable Care Act won the support of 34 percent of Catholics and 35 percent of Protestants.

But weekly churchgoers were significantly more likely to favor Republican candidates and positions. There was majority support for raising the minimum wage only among voters who attend church less than once a week, and support for the Affordable Care Act was highest among those who “never” attend services. The poll is consistent with other studies indicating that Catholics who say they attend Mass weekly have more traditional views and are less supportive of government activism than those who say they attend Mass less frequently or not at all.

How did the Democratic Party lose their sizable advantage with Catholic voters? Its position on abortion—specifically the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision—is surely a factor. Jimmy Carter was the last Democratic nominee to express support for tighter restrictions on abortion, and his 57 percent of the Catholic vote (according to Gallup) has not been matched since. Pro-life Catholics have found themselves in alliance with Southern evangelical Protestants, and it is the Republican Party that has welcomed them.

A broader issue is respect for religion itself. The Democratic Party has gained a reputation as being uncomfortable with spiritual language and values. The Republicans, in contrast, have highlighted the piety of its presidential candidates and promised a greater role for religion in civic life, from sanctioning prayer in school to giving religious groups more responsibility in providing services to the poor.

The Republican Party has also been stoutly in defense of the Pledge of Allegiance (including the added phrase “under God”) and a constitutional amendment banning the desecration of the American flag. The conflation of religious values with patriotism has long been a characteristic of the Republican Party—“Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is,” said Dwight Eisenhower shortly after being elected president, putting both the secularist and the Communist outside the bounds of acceptability—but it was Ronald Reagan who made it synonymous with the G.O.P.

The Great Communicator is the primary subject of Rick Perlstein’s sprawling book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, which covers much of the period when the Catholic vote became untethered from the Democratic Party. Perlstein’s thesis is that the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, in addition to rising crime rates and an energy crisis, posed some tough questions about the future of the United States, but we decided to learn nothing from these traumatic events and instead turned to Reagan, the enemy of nuance and champion of American exceptionalism.

Voters’ Block

After the Kennedy presidency, Americans from nearly all religious groups became concerned with the apparent unraveling of civil society. The former Nixon advisor Patrick Buchanan, in an interview this summer with America, said that the Democratic Party’s response to social upheaval and its nomination of “amnesty and abortion” candidate George McGovern alienated what had been a loyal bloc: “I think many Catholics of that generation—conservative, traditionalist Catholic union folks—were much closer to Richard Nixon than they were to the elites demonstrating on the campuses or the rioters.... Cultural, moral and social issues brought postwar Catholics into the Nixon new majority.”

Writing about The Invisible Bridge, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones suggests that it could have benefited from more of an attempt to understand this point of view: “I wish Perlstein had gone a little lighter on his obvious contempt for Reagan and spent a little more time owning up—perhaps uncomfortably—to just what it was about the liberalism of the 70s that finally drove so many voters crazy.”

Jimmy Carter—a deeply religious but ecumenical Baptist—temporarily got many of these voters back in 1976, but Reagan was more than adept in appealing to the Catholic vote during the 1980s.

Perlstein notes that one of Reagan’s favorite quotations to drop into his speeches came from Pope Pius XII: “The American people have a genius for great and unselfish deeds. Into the hands of America God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind.” Reagan may have interpreted the statement as more of a blank check of approval than it really was, but citing the pope as an authority was a shrewd way of easing religious doubts about a my-country-right-or-wrong nationalism. Running for the 1976 Republican nomination, Reagan also told an Illinois audience, “I happen to believe there was a divine plan in the settling of this land between the oceans.”

After the Reagan administration, the Democratic Party continued to facilitate a divorce from Catholic voters. In his 1990 book Under God: Religion and American Politics, Garry Wills expressed astonishment at the tone-deafness of its 1988 presidential nominee: “[Michael] Dukakis was the first truly secular candidate we have ever had for the presidency. Not a ‘secularist’ as Pat Robertson would define that term, not a militant against religion, but someone entirely free from religion.” That Dukakis was the first non-Protestant nominee since Kennedy earned him little headway with Catholic voters, who gave him only about half their vote after delivering strong majorities for Protestants Hubert Humphrey and Jimmy Carter.

Since then, the so-called Catholic vote has been divided pretty much down the middle, reflecting the nation as a whole—still significantly more Democratic than white Protestants, but not as reliably Democratic as African-Americans or voters who do not identify with a specific Christian church. The changing identities and priorities of the two major parties undoubtedly drove some Catholic voters away from the Democrats, but changing economic circumstances must also be considered.

“It’s got to do with class,” the political scientist Nelson Polsby told America in 2004 (“Catholics and Candidates” 5/17/04). “Lots of Catholics do what Protestants do. When they make more money, they are likely to be Republican.”

John Kenneth White, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, agreed: “In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Catholics had become part of the haves.... They’ve got their green eyeshades on and they’re looking at their tax bills.”

Selective Catholicism

Catholic identity has not become invisible in American politics. It is a constant theme in coverage of Paul Ryan, the Catholic member of Congress from Wisconsin and the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee. Mr. Ryan has been making a case for smaller government and more market-based solutions to poverty, but he frequently has to battle accusations that his worldview comes more from atheist perspectives and Ayn Rand, the author of Atlas Shrugged, than from his church. “If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” Paul Ryan fretted to Robert Costa, of The National Review, in 2012. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”

Mr. Ryan would not get the support of a group called Nuns on the Bus, which is organizing a voter drive across the country this fall. In covering their kick-off event with Joe Biden (the first Catholic vice president), Jennifer Jacobs, of The Des Moines Register, wrote, “They draw attention to the ‘wealth gap,’ health care for all, immigrants’ rights, nonviolent solutions to conflict, a ‘living wage,’ housing policy, and not forcing Americans to spend down to zero before they qualify for food stamps, Medicaid or other social services.” But she also noted, “They leave issues such as abortion and gay rights to other groups.” It seems that the price of admission to the big leagues of national politics is to be carefully selective about Catholic doctrine.

Abortion is a support beam of our newly polarized two-party system, with nearly all elected Democrats on the “pro-choice” side and nearly all elected Republicans (including Paul Ryan) in favor of anti-abortion legislation. As long as this is the case, it is hard to envision a more unified Catholic vote than what currently exists.

The polarized two-party system may be one reason for the rising number of voters who call themselves independent. “Some voters who identify as independents are partisans who don’t wish to identify that way for a specific and logical reason,” the political scientist Julia Azari, of Marquette University, writes on the Mischiefs of Faction blog. “They might be Democrats who lean with the party in a doveish direction, but break with it on abortion.”

So if religious beliefs can influence partisan identification, can partisanship, in turn, influence religious identification? In a 2010 Forum on Religion & Public Life, held by the Pew Research Center, professor David Campbell, of Notre Dame (co-author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us), noted, “For many Americans, Republican equals religion.” As a result, he speculated, “when asked today, are you of a particular religion, [many Americans] think, well, wait a second, religion—that equals a particular brand of politics. That’s not my politics.... Ergo, they report, I don’t have a religion.”

Because the Catholic vote tracks so closely with national election results, it is tempting to speak of Catholics as a powerful swing group, but slack and elastic may be better adjectives. If you limit the Catholic vote to those who attend Mass weekly, you would get one result, and if you expand it to include Catholics uncomfortable with the “religion equals Republican” perception, you might get something quite different.

“I believe in an America,” John F. Kennedy said in his famous 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, “where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.”

Kennedy, in fact, owed his election to an almost-unanimous Catholic bloc, but his vision has since come true.

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