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John CarrOctober 15, 2014

Religion is losing influence in the United States, but more Americans want churches to express their convictions on political issues. This paradox is reported in a Pew Research Center study on religion and public life: 72 percent think religion is losing influence, and most see this as a bad thing.

More Americans say churches should express views on social and political issues, up to 49 percent in 2014 from 43 percent in 2010. Those who think there is too little expression of religion in politics outnumber those who believe there is too much by a margin of 41 percent to 30 percent.

Almost half (47 percent) see the Republican Party as friendly toward religion. Less than a third (29 percent) see the Democratic Party as friendly toward religion. The Obama administration is seen as friendly by 30 percent, a decline of 7 percent from 2009. Among Catholics, the percentage saying the administration is “unfriendly” has grown from 15 to 28 percent.

These findings suggest challenges for both parties and Catholic leaders:

Catholic Differences. E. J. Dionne Jr., describing the political diversity and electoral impact of Catholics, has said, “There is no ‘Catholic vote’…and it is really important.” There are political differences based on Mass attendance, but ethnicity offers a more stark contrast. Divisions between Hispanic Catholics and “white Catholics” reflect differing experiences, ethnic identity and moral priorities. Sixty-nine percent of Hispanic Catholics and 41 percent of white Catholics are Democrats or lean toward that party. Fifty-three percent of white Catholics lean Republican compared with 26 percent of Hispanic Catholics. The church’s efforts to speak to and for the Catholic community have to take these realities into account.

Republican Resentments. Pew reports that many Republicans say their party is doing a “bad job” and want it to be more conservative on abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholics who are Republicans because of pro-life and traditional marriage convictions may resent that Republican leaders pursue other elements of the Republican agenda more visibly and vigorously. Sadly, many Republicans want their party to be more conservative on legal status for immigrants, obstructing needed immigration reform and efforts to make the Republican Party more competitive in presidential elections by reaching out to Hispanic voters.

Democratic Dangers. Increases in those who see the Democratic Party as unfriendly toward religion reflect battles over contraceptive mandates, conscience rights and religious freedom. A related danger may be electoral strategies that focus primarily on those with no religious affiliation, single women and educational elites, along with African-Americans and Hispanics. This is a White House where Planned Parenthood and gay rights groups have more clout than the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Hispanic leaders. This progressive version of the culture wars can make the Democratic Party less welcoming for people with traditional religious beliefs. Van Jones, a leader of the progressive left, not the religious right, warned against “becoming this party where you can be spiritual but not religious,” which is “going to leave out a lot of people.”

The Democratic Party has lost Catholics, but the Republican Party has not become their permanent political residence. Catholics with Pope Francis’ priority for the poor and vulnerable may find themselves politically homeless—comfortable with neither Republican economic individualism, which measures everything by the market, nor with Democratic cultural individualism, which celebrates personal “choice” above all else. Neither form of libertarianism leaves enough room for the weak and vulnerable or the common good. The task for Catholics is not to wring our hands but to work in both parties and other institutions to build a new politics that protects both human life and human dignity.

My experience at Georgetown, at Harvard and in Washington, D.C., suggests there is recognition that our challenges are not just economic, military or political but also moral, ethical and, yes, religious. This Pew study reports there is openness and opportunity for Catholics to follow Pope Francis in bringing “the joy of the Gospel” to public life. Our faith offers moral principles, civic virtues and priority for the “least of these” that can help to heal our wounded nation and broken world.

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