There Is No ‘Catholic Vote’

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Nearly half a century ago, L. Brent Bozell, Jr., and the editors of Triumph did some math. The editors in “The Catholic Vote” (1974) and Bozell in “Toward a Catholic Realpolitik” (1975) observed that Catholics, if unified, would be the most powerful voting bloc in the country and, in fact, the entire world. It’s a fairly obvious proposition given the sheer number of Catholics in the U.S. and worldwide, and the possibility that a Church that requires such firm assent to all of its teachings by all of its members might form a unitary political bloc is not (or should not be) unthinkable. Yet Triumph saw in the Catholic body politic only untapped potential, as Catholic voters refused or failed to unite behind the moral vision of the Church.

Forty-five years later, the situation—or, rather, the non-situation—of the Catholic vote is just about the same, as a recent RealClear/EWTN poll of Catholic voters plainly shows. The poll, administered exclusively to Americans who identify as Catholic and are registered to vote, attempts to get a glimpse of the leanings of Catholic voters going into the 2020 election by asking both about hot topic issues and about particular candidates.

EWTN’s own analysis of the poll boasts that “Catholics—especially engaged or active ones—have been a crucial voting bloc in every election of the last fifty years, and 2016 was no exception.” Yet the very next sentence of the analysis betrays the naïveté of this claim: “Donald Trump split the total Catholic vote with Hillary Clinton, and he will have a very difficult time regaining the White House without comparable Catholic support.”

Contrary to EWTN’s suggestion, Catholic voters have been “crucial” only in that there are a great number of them, but in no point in modern politics have they constituted a voting bloc in any meaningful sense. In nearly every election of the past 50 years and more, Catholics have voted for the Democratic candidate by just a few percentage points. When they have deviated from that trend, moreover, it has generally been for obvious reasons and in accordance with the broader trends of the national vote, as in 1984 when the Catholic vote swung Republican to participate in Reagan’s landslide reelection. The only remarkable vote—and the only time Catholics voted as a genuine bloc—was in 1960, when 78 percent voted for fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy, for the obvious reason. The Kennedy bump had a residual, waning effect in ‘64 (76 percent Democrat against 24 percent Republican) and ‘68 (59 percent against 33 percent), but there has been no national election since 1968 whose outcome would even have changed if every Catholic in the country had simply stayed home in November.

Just as American Catholics are divided roughly along the standard party lines of the country at large, they are similarly divided on a few important issues. Most notably on abortion, respondents were apparently influenced far more by the prevailing doctrines of the major parties than the teaching of the Church. Twenty percent endorsed the reigning wisdom of the Democrat Party that “it should always be legal,” 33 percent the Republican consensus that “it should be illegal except for rape, incest, or to save a mother’s life,” and 31 percent the supposed middle ground that “it should be legal, except in the case of late-term abortion.” Only 11 percent support the Church’s teaching, which is that “it should always be illegal.”

Such data seem to indicate that Catholic opinion is determined far more by party affiliation than by faith. This strength of party loyalty often leads Catholics into complicity with grave evil, as with the 84 percent who support some form of legal abortion. Many Catholics are wont to make apologies for their Democratic coreligionists in particular (especially the older ones) with sympathetic whispers of, “Well, he’s a Kennedy Democrat…,” as if there were no opportunity for such a voter to evolve after 1963. Such apologists tend to absolve Catholic Democrats of agency on key moral issues, assuming that they cannot be held to account for the actions of the party machine. But if Catholic Democrats—and there are many millions of them—were truly interested in changing the party’s stance on abortion, they could exert substantial force to that end. To date, they have exerted none. Given the potential to act and the failure to do so, our brethren certainly incur some blame for the failures of their party.

Apologists might even point to the lower level of enthusiastic support for such evils as abortion relative to the overall levels among the party. Indeed, the polling numbers on most of the issues are fairly moderate: 45 percent believe that Christian business owners should not be coerced into participation in same-sex weddings, against only 40 percent who approve of such coercion; 55 percent believe bathroom use should be determined by biology, while only 30 percent would leave it up to choice. But we cannot excuse ourselves so easily. The Church has clear teachings on all of these matters, and she demands fidelity. American Catholics as a body are the very definition of lukewarm, and we must change ourselves—and our country—or prepare to be spat out.

Given the information contained in this poll, it seems apparent that Catholic voters will not be radically redefining the American landscape anytime soon. But this is for one reason and one reason only: they have no interest in it. At least, they have no interest strong enough to transcend party bonds and operate politically as Catholics. If they wanted to, they certainly could, and no other political bloc could rival them. Brent Bozell knew this, and he dreamed of a unified Catholic people that would “eclipse all the pretensions of the great powers.” For the time being, though, it seems that the Catholic voter is content to submit to these powers—these principalities, these world rulers of this present darkness.

Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images

Declan Leary

By

Declan Leary is the Collegiate Network Fellow at The American Conservative and a graduate of John Carroll University.

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