Catholics and Evangelicals: Can They Be Allies?

With the November 1998 issue, Crisis launched its unprecedented analysis of the catholic vote in America (“Mind of the Catholic Voter” by Robert Novak). The central question tackled by that research was whether political conservatives can reasonably expect to attract a majority  of Catholic votes.  This question was provoked by the observation that Catholics were not treading the path of born-again, fundamentalist, evangelical Christians toward more conservative voting habits.

But our careful analysis of exit polls and other historical survey data revealed that Catholics were indeed in the midst of a political migration.  Crisis identified these five trends:

Part I: Mind

  1. A growing number of self-identified conservatives among active Catholics
  2. An exodus of all Catholics, but especially active Catholics, out of the Democratic Party.
  3. An increasing propensity of active Catholics to vote Republican.
  4. An increasing share of electorate represented by active Catholics.
  5. And—arguably of greatest long-term significance—a sharp divergence in the political behavior between religiously active and inactive Catholics.

On the other hand, Crisis also identified a reluctance among these migrating Catholics to call themselves Republicans. Many Catholics remain suspicious of the Republican Party, principally because the GOP seems to them too materialistic and excessively confident in the justice of the market economy.

Having identified these trends, Crisis next asked, “What accounts for the political behavior of Catholic voters?” This led to the commissioning of the most comprehensive survey of Catholic political attitudes ever conducted in the United States, the results of which were reported in the June 1999 issue (“The Heart of the Catholic Voter” by William McGurn). Through this survey, we discovered:

Part II: The Heart of the Catholic Voter

  1. A very large majority of Catholics perceive the country to be in a crisis of declining morality.
  2. While a plurality of Catholics favor an activist federal government, a large majority regard Washington as exacerbating the moral crisis.
  3. Nearly half of Catholic voters are today swing voters and cannot be taken for granted by either party.
  4. A new political orientation has emerged among Catholics—particularly among Mass-attending Catholics—called “social renewal” conservatism, grounded in the widespread Catholic perception of a cultural and social crisis.
  5. The emergence of this “social renewal” orientation among active Catholics may possibly set the stage for further electoral gains by the right sort of conservative candidates.

Having shown empirically the opportunity for conservatives among Catholics, Crisis now asks: Do conservative candidates, in appealing to Catholic voters, risk alienating evangelical conservatives, who have, after all, fueled conservative and Republican gains over the past 20 years?  Is the political agenda of religiously active Catholics incompatible with the agenda of “the Christian Right”?

Briefly, the answers are “no”:

Part III: Can They Be Allies?

  1. Catholics and evangelical conservatives share the critique of moral decline in American society, and both look for opportunities to arrest the decline.
  2. Both are suspicious of the popular culture; while Catholics have long had a separatist impulse, evangelical Christians are being driven to their own separatism.
  3. While Catholics reject anti-government rhetoric, evangelical conservatives reject the expansion of government; yet both desire the federal government to cease inflicting harm on the nation’s moral character.
  4. Below the question of, “Should government be bigger or smaller?,” there is virtually no programmatic disagreement between Mass-attending Catholics and religiously active evangelical conservatives. (The one exception is opinion on gambling and lotteries.)
  5. Both religiously active Catholics and evangelical conservatives affirm absolute standards of morality and agree on what those standards are.

In sum, Mass-attending Catholics and religiously active evangelical conservatives have arrived by very different routes at a very similar political place. Both hunger for the articulation of an agenda of social and cultural rejuvenation.

Defining Terms

“Evangelical conservative” means a Protestant Christian who is politically active, not a political conservative who is religiously active. Social scientists recently stumbled on the political significance of the rise of religious conservatism. The National Election Study (NES) of the University of Michigan, on which much of the Crisis historical analysis is based, began asking respondents if they considered themelves to be “born-again” only in 1980, by which time Rev. Jerry Falwell had already had his most profound impact.

In the 1998 NES survey, 29 percent of American adults reported they were “born-again.” As many as 22 percent described their Christianity as either fundamentalist or evangelical. Interestingly, there is little overlap: Most born-again Christians are neither fundamentalist nor evangelical, and only about half of fundamentalists and evangelicals embrace the label “born-again.” When Christian political advocacy organizations seek to maximize the political weight of the constituencies they represent, they are heard to refer to “born-again, fundamentalist, and evangelical Christians,” a phrase that encompasses 39 percent of the American public.

Some of these folks are Catholic. Fifteen percent of Catholics call themselves born-again (Mass-attending and inactives in equal proportion). Twenty-three percent of active Catholics describe their Christianity as either fundamentalist or evangelical. Twenty-four percent are charismatic and 39 percent are “moderate to liberal”; few inactive Catholics use the fundamentalist or evangelical label.

Many of the nominal evangelical conservatives are not church-going: Just over half (55 percent) of self-described born-again Christians attend religious services every week or almost every week; about the same proportion of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians attend church as frequently.

If our purpose is to draw meaningful distinctions between religiously active Catholics and evangelical conservatives, we need to be precise in our selection criteria and consider only those born-again, evangelical, or fundamentalist Christians who are not Catholic and attend church regularly.

There is another consideration: race. Twenty-one percent of self-identified born-again Christians are African-American, although fewer of either fundamentalists (11 percent) or evangelicals (8 percent) are. Religiously active African-American Christians do not share the enthusiasm of their white born-again, fundamentalist, or evangelical brethren for political conservatism. Since the question before us is whether political conservatives put their conservative Christian base at risk by appealing to Catholics, and since African-Americans are not part of that base, we will limit our comparisons with active Catholics to white evangelical conservatives—as indeed Christian political advocacy organizations do when they want to emphasize the political homogeneity of their constituency or the debt owed them by the Republican Party.

Historical Background

Any definition of an evangelical conservative confirms our findings. White, religiously active, non-Catholic born-again Christians represented 16 percent of the presidential vote in 1996, and 71 percent voted for Bob Dole (he received 41 percent nationally). White, religiously active, non-Catholic fundamentalist or evangelical Christians were 13 percent of the 1996 electorate and gave 72 percent of their vote to Bob Dole.

But these labels are highly subjective, and the comparison of results between surveys is complicated by variations in question wording. Fortunately, there is an alternative: The phenomenon of evangelical conservatives supporting political conservatives is also denominational and exposed by segmenting Protestants into members of traditional reformed churches, versus members of pietistic or neo-fundamentalist churches (including all Baptist denominations, Methodists, Holiness and Pentecostal churches, Missouri Synod Lutherans, and numerous independent Christian churches, among others). White, religiously active, non- Catholic members of pietistic or neo-fundamentalist churches were 16 percent of the 1996 electorate and cast 68 percent of their votes for Bob Dole. So this denominational definition of Christian conservatism is just as politically discriminating yet has the advantages of greater objectivity and of allowing for comparisons between surveys over time. Bear in mind, by the shorthand “evangelical conservative” hereafter I mean white, non-Catholic, religiously active members of pietistic and neo-fundamentalist churches.

From 1960 (the earliest year for which we have detailed denominational and religious activism data) until 1972, active Catholics apparently contributed more voters in presidential elections than did evangelical conservatives. From 1976 to 1984, these two groups                 were at parity. From 1988 until 1996, there were more evangelical conservative voters than active Catholics, and their share of the electorate was growing election to election. But after the nadir of 1988, active Catholics also began to rebound as a percentage of voter turnout, while during the same period, “traditional” Protestant voters declined precipitously as a share of the total vote.

From 1960 to 1996, with the exception of the 1964 Johnson landslide, evangelical conservatives have always given a majority of their votes to the GOP presidential candidate. Active Catholics rarely do—only in 1972 (Nixon), 1980 (Reagan), and 1984 (Reagan again). But in 1992 (Bush) and 1996 (Dole), the GOP presidential candidate did better among active Catholics than among all voters—a startling development that is the most significant evidence of convergence between these two religiously active constituencies.

Other convergences are apparent. In 1972, the first year in which the NES asked respondents their ideology, 55 percent of evangelical conservatives identified themselves as ideological conservatives, versus 36 percent of active Catholics. Last year, these figures were 55 percent self-identified conservatives among evangelical conservatives and 50 percent among active Catholics. Clearly, an ideological convergence is under way.

In party affiliation, the convergence is less clear, notwithstanding a common migration out of the Democratic Party. In 1960, two of three active Catholics called themselves Democrats (66 percent). That same year, 47 percent of evangelical conservatives were Democrats. Last year, 37 percent of active Catholics were still Democrats (down 29 percent), as were 23 percent of evangelical conservatives (down 24 percent). Both groups have migrated out of the Democratic Party but toward different places: Republicans are still rare among active Catholics (28 percent), but a plurality (42 percent) of evangelical conservatives are in the GOP.

Theological Differences

Survey questions of particular value for our comparisons were the 1998 installment of the NES and two surveys conducted by the Washington Post/Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University on American values. There are some interesting if predictable theological differences in this review. For example, regarding biblical authority, 62 percent of evangelical conservatives consider the Bible to be “the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” On the other hand, a majority of active Catholics (67 percent) say “the Bible is the word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.” Consequently, perhaps, 8 percent of active Catholics read the Bible daily, versus 27 percent of evangelical conservatives.

Do such theological differences imply political incompatibility? Yes, says Dr. Robert Bellah, professor emeritus of sociology at University of California-Berkeley. Writing in the July 31 issue of America, he argues that our nation suffers from a cultural code dominated by Protestantism and there¬fore radical individualism. What’s more, he says, “The dominance of Protestantism…[in] the American cultural code is responsible for many of our present difficulties” (which derive from this individualism—and most Catholics would intuitively embrace this criticism of individualism). While Bellah’s call for an infusion of “Catholic imagination” into the American cultural code may be gratifying (Bellah is a Presbyterian convert to Episcopalianism), it is profoundly unfair to evangelical conservatives.

It is as if Bellah wants to impede political collaboration between Catholics and evangelical conservatives (which another writer for America, Rev. Andrew Greeley, seeks to do explicitly). But evangelical Christians are not the Protestant authors of America’s cultural code. The evangelical conservatives who are now political conservatives are every bit as alienated from the popular culture as are Mass-attending Catholics. The cultural code is in the hands of the nonreligious.

This charge of “radical individualism” leveled at Protestants—especially evangelical conservatives—derives from their “near exclusive focus on the relationship between Jesus and the individual, where accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal lord and savior becomes almost the whole of piety,” Bellah argues. And while this observation may provide a meaningful theological distinction between Catholics and Protestants, it is politically misleading. Individualism in a politically relevant sense means regarding the individual to be the fundamental social unit and elevating personal freedom to preeminence among the political virtues.

Given this, it is simply untrue that evangelical conservatives are politically individualistic. Are church- attending Protestants less devoted to their spouses and children than Catholics? No. Are they less likely to join PTOs or service clubs? Less active in their churches, less charitable than are Mass-attending Catholics? No. Are they more susceptible than Catholics to fantasies about self-sufficiency in this world? No, indeed: By these measures, evangelical conservatives are every bit as socially engaged as active Catholics—every bit as aware of our interdependence and reciprocal responsibilities.

Among Catholics, the Crisis survey tested the concept of individualism by asking whether happiness is more likely to accrue to persons responsible for the well-being of others, or to those who are free to do whatever they want. All Catholics selected the burden of responsibility by a 2-to-1-margin (61 percent to 29 percent), and religiously active Catholics by 3-to-1.

An indicative question from the 1996 NES survey posed these options: Is it “more important to be a cooperative person who works well with others,” or is it “more important to be a self-reliant person able to take care of oneself”? More active Catholics selected the former, anti-individualist response (64 percent) than did evangelical conservatives (59 percent), but the larger point is a majority of both were in agreement. Even more striking, when presented in other questions with these propositions, “A person should always be concerned about the well-being of others,” and “It is important to me personally to help others who are less fortunate,” virtually every evangelical conservative agreed. Do not mistake social consciousness for a diminution of individual responsibility: 74 percent of active Catholics and 85 percent of evangelical conservatives agree that “people should take responsibility for their own lives and economic well-being and not expect other people to help.” The embrace of individual responsibility evidently coexists with the rejection of individualism for both Catholics and evangelical conservatives.

Were it true that the American cultural code is dominated by Protestantism, would not then evangelical conservatives be comfortable with this culture so reflective of their values? Yet there is no evidence of satisfaction among evangelical conservatives; to the contrary, active Catholics and evangelical conservatives are united in their abhorrence of what American culture has become—indeed, evangelical conservatives even more so than Catholics—precisely because both have lost their influence over the American cultural code.

For example, concerning the state of our national “values and moral beliefs,” 78 percent of active Catholics and 89 percent of evangelical conservatives agree the country is “on the wrong track” (consistent with the Crisis finding that 75 percent of Catholics say there is a crisis of declining individual morality in the country today). Evangelical conservatives are likely to identify the most important problem facing the country today as “moral decay,” while Catholics are more likely to identify one of the various symptoms of moral decline, such as crime, drugs, deteriorating education quality, and so forth. Both constituencies are sympathetic to a social renewal agenda.

Size of Government

Despite their separatist inclinations, Catholics historically have also been favorably disposed toward activist government and optimistic about the possibilities for those same secular authorities to be helpful.

Evangelical conservatives too are afflicted with a values conflict, going rather in the opposite direction. While they have historically enjoyed a position of dominance of the American cultural code, they have of late become hugely suspicious of the prevailing culture and are being driven to their own separatism (witness the rise of home schooling and non-Catholic Christian schools).

The most enduring political stereotype regarding the difference between Catholics and evangelical conservatives is that Catholics like big government and evangelical conservatives do not. There is some support for this generalization in the survey data. In a 1996 survey, respondents were offered two propositions, the first “The less government the better,” the second, “There are more things government should be doing.” Active Catholics narrowly opted for the latter (54 percent to 45 percent)—reacting against, I suspect, the rhetoric of “the less government the better”—while evangelical conservatives opted decisively for the former (68 percent to 32 percent). Another question that year counterpoised, “We need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems” against “The free market can handle these problems without government being involved.” This time it was the active Catholics’ turn for greater decisiveness, opting by a 2-to-1 margin for the former, while evangelical conservatives split evenly (51 percent to 49 percent). Results such as these sustain the characterization of Catholics as sympathetic to government. This is why Crisis advises not to use blanket anti-government rhetoric within earshot of Catholic voters.

Nevertheless, at this particular political moment, active Catholics and evangelical conservatives share a disposition toward cutting back on perceived excesses of government. When asked whether they favor a smaller government with fewer services or a larger government with many services, majorities of both active Catholics (63 percent) and evangelical conservatives (74 percent) contend they favor smaller government. Separately, active Catholics and evangelical conservatives also agree government has gone too far in regulating business and interfering with the functioning of the free enterprise system.

Catholics eschew anti-government rhetoric; evangelical conservatives eschew more government. But there is a common ground: namely, agreement that we need to end the harm the federal government is inflicting on the country. Catholics see this: By a 3-to-1 margin, all Catholics (active and inactive) say the federal government is doing more to harm the moral climate than to help.

Over the past 30 or so years, the Catholic affection for government has evolved. Asked if “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everybody who wants to work can find a job,” 63 percent of active Catholics in 1960 strongly agreed (versus 29 percent of evangelical conservatives). Last year, a similar survey question on whether Washington should “see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living” (versus letting each person get ahead on his or her own) found just 31 percent of active Catholics (and 27 percent of evangelical conservatives) leaning in favor. Some of the mitigation of enthusiasm can be attributed to the loss of trust in government. In 1960, 70 percent said they could trust government to do the right thing most of the time. By 1998, 55 percent said government could be trusted only some of the time (the most negative available response).

A second factor is Catholic social ascendancy. Active Catholics are better educated than any other religious cohort in the 1998 NES survey, either religiously active or inactive. They have higher household incomes, and they are more likely to own stock (59 percent versus 40 percent of evangelical conservatives). As a group, they are less economically vulnerable.

The principle of human equality is central to the American Catholic political identity. Consequently, when the federal government was perceived to be advancing affirmative action in the form of quotas and hiring preferences, Catholics were offended—but equally so were evangelical conservatives. The 1998 NES survey presented two sides of the argument: Some people say that because of past discrimination, African-Americans should be given preference in hiring and promotion. Others say that such a preference is wrong because “it gives blacks advantages they haven’t earned.” Eighty-five percent of active Catholics and 89 percent of evangelical conservatives sided with the second statement.

There have always been limits to Catholic affection for government. While a majority of active Catholics think government has a responsibility to try to do away with poverty (73 percent, and 63 percent of evangelical conservatives agree), active Catholics also decisively reject the narrowing of the income gap between rich and poor (read income redistribution) as a legitimate function of government. This is an issue with some political currency as we assess the impact of welfare reform (which a majority of the Catholic laity supports). The current political debate has shifted away from issues of the quantity of government to issues of the quality of government performance.

Below the level of such macro questions as “Is government a good thing or not?,” there is virtually no programmatic disagreement between active Catholics and evangelical conservatives. Evangelical conservatives consistently evidence more homogeneity of opinion (because they are a more homogenous group), but of the hundreds of questions I examined, the only policy disagreement between active Catholics and evangelical conservatives is over the proliferation of casino gambling and lotteries: Catholics are for them, evangelical conservatives are against them. On every other question, the intensity of opinion may differ, but never the direction of the response. Yet there are many issues on which the religiously active (Catholics and evangelical conservatives included) disagree with the religiously inactive—indeed virtually any issue with moral content.

Moral Issues

There is evidence of a greater moral certainty or at least of greater moral homogeneity among evangelical conservatives on these issues with moral content. Consider two examples: abortion and homosexuality. Ninety percent of religiously active, white, born-again Christians say that abortion is morally unacceptable (this from a survey that did not ask for religious denomination). Eighty-four percent of active Catholics concur (from the Crisis survey). But 25 percent of active Catholics think abortion should be available to a woman for any reason, versus 17 percent of evangelical conservatives. It is easier to find active Catholics than evangelical conservatives who regard abortion to be morally unacceptable but are reticent to impose this judgment on others with the force of law.

Similarly, majorities of both active Catholics and evangelical conservatives regard homosexual acts to be morally unacceptable, but there is a gap: 62 percent of active Catholics versus 86 percent of religiously active, white, born-again Christians. Moreover, half of evangelical conservatives (54 percent) believe that homosexuality is morally unacceptable and should not be tolerated; only 26 percent of active Catholics concur. Large majorities of both active Catholics (91 percent) and evangelical conservatives (75 percent) believe homosexuals should not be subject to employment discrimination, and majorities of both groups recommend that the government not get involved with either promoting or discouraging homosexuality. But then a majority of evangelical conservatives (65 percent) opine that homosexual “relations” should be illegal. Homosexuality would be a nonissue for active Catholics were it not for the radical agenda of homosexual advocates to legalize gay marriage and gay adoption—to which active Catholics are overwhelmingly opposed.

Despite suspicions by political liberals that sinister political organizing is occurring behind closed doors of the evangelical churches, Catholics are as likely to have received campaign information at their place of worship (18 percent of active Catholics versus 16 percent of evangelical conservatives). Few of either group received advice on voting from their clergy (5 percent of active Catholics versus 2 percent of evangelical conservatives). And Catholics were as likely as evangelical conservatives to have been contacted by a religious or moral advocacy group during the election (16 percent versus 15 percent). These results belie the image of evangelical churches as hotbeds of political activism.

The conclusion of this survey of opinion research findings is that active Catholics and evangelical conservatives have, by very different routes, arrived at a similar place, politically. This is not to say that there are no differences: Effective political rhetoric will have different tones, different language, and different emphases for Catholic and non-Catholic audiences. The sort of “social renewal” conservatism to which Catholics will be most sympathetic is of a particular sort—deriving from a recognition that the moral ecology of a community bears substantially on the ability of individuals to achieve their desired quality of life—that will not appeal to all conservatives. But the current political schisms that exist between active Catholics and evangelical conservatives are trivial compared with the political schisms between religiously active and religiously inactive voters.

This conclusion is particular to the current political moment. At another time, under different political circumstances, active Catholics and evangelical conservatives might find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades. But at this political moment, these two groups are united by a common diagnosis of the social crisis and a common desire for an agenda of social and cultural reconstruction. We stand together just now at the side of the road with thumbs out, waiting for a political leadership to come along that will lead us forward.


At the time this article was published, Steve Wagner was president of QEV Analytics, a public opinion research firm in Washington, D.C.

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