Cover story -- Presidential election -- Analysis
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Issue Date:  November 23, 2007

-- MCT/Wes Killingbeck

'08 election brings major shift in religious-political alignments


A year in advance of the presidential election, as the bishops gathered in Baltimore to hammer out their every-four-year statement on political responsibility, the accepted political wisdom of recent years appeared as fleeting as autumn’s colors.

Who could have imagined, in the heat of the 2004 presidential election, that the Republican front-runner three years later would be the thrice-married, pro-choice, progay, antigun former mayor of New York, whose children won’t even endorse him?

Or that values voters so ardently and successfully recruited to the Republican cause during the past two presidential elections would appear so divided, if not missing, from the campaign so far?

Who could have imagined the political oddball pairing of the year: the endorsement of Rudy Giuliani by TV evangelist Pat Robertson, the antigay, antiabortion channeler of celestial pronouncements who once blamed 9/11 on the sins of America?

The radically revamped political landscape of this year’s presidential politics makes all the more intriguing the perennial question: Whither the Catholic vote? It is an important question for at least two reasons: Catholics number 67 million, roughly a quarter of the population, and Catholics have a knack for picking winners.

“The Catholic vote is the preeminent swing vote,” said Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, who teaches at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “If you look at most recent elections, they’ve always voted for the winners.” That goes for the two Clinton elections. In 2000, a majority of Catholics voted for Al Gore, who won the popular vote but lost to George Bush in the Supreme Court.

A considerable difference exists, however, between what the bishops consider top Catholic priorities and what ordinary Catholics consider important when they go to vote. This year the bishops have placed the matter of abortion as emphatically as ever at the center of their political responsibility statement, though not to the exclusion of such other concerns as torture, war and poverty. Thus, if the front-runners of today, Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, both pro-choice, are the nominees of 2008, in some respects it could well be a statement in futile search of a candidate. The reality is that abortion is rarely the top concern for the majority of Catholic voters, despite a persistent campaign by the Catholic hierarchy to make it the centerpiece of Catholic politics since the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

In 2004, Catholics voted for George Bush over John Kerry. If some took that as a sign that the faithful were lining up on the abortion issue, it was a short-lived shift, since Catholics joined others, without much regard for candidates’ abortion position, in turning out Republicans in the 2006 congressional elections.

In that election, 55 percent of Catholics voted Democratic, according to exit polls.

John Kenneth White, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, doubts that there is something as distinct as “the Catholic vote.” “If you look at the overall Catholic vote, it looks like the rest of America, it doesn’t look that much different,” he said. The unsuccessful campaign of John Kerry, the Catholic candidate in 2004, “had everything to do with a lot of other things” than what are usually considered the Catholic hot-button issues, “but not because Catholic identity was brought to the polls.”

White believes that the number of Catholics who bring that strong identity to the polls, who define their approach to national politics by a strong agreement with the bishops’ teaching on such matters as abortion, stem-cell research and homosexuality, “is very small.”

In the same way, he said, Hispanic Catholics are more likely to vote on the basis of ethnic identification than on the basis of their Catholicism. “Take immigration, for instance,” said White. “Immigration for Hispanics is far more important than any sense of Catholic identity.”

Christine Sierra, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, would agree with the assessment that much has changed since 2004. “The evangelical right is not finding a candidate they can really strongly get behind and they are a bit fractured right now,” she said. “The so-called wedge issues that have been used in the past are really falling down the political agenda behind the war in Iraq and domestic social issues such as health care, jobs, economy and probably education.” That’s also true of Hispanic Catholics, she said. Except for a small minority of Catholic Hispanics and for some evangelical Hispanics, a growing but still relatively small percentage of the population, issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are not much of a priority, she said.

She also has a different view of the Latino vote regarding immigration. “In every single survey where Latinos are asked to volunteer their top concerns, they say education, jobs/economy and health care.” Immigration is not part of that mix unless it is placed on the agenda and that usually comes from non-Latino, anti-immigration forces, she said.

At the same time, she said, should the Republicans ultimately run on an anti-immigrant platform, “that will kill them with Latino voters.”

If, indeed, the Catholic vote looks like that of the rest of the country, this year prognosticators will have to take into account the fact that the tendencies of the voting population look far different now from what they did just five years ago.

The previous emphasis on a candidate’s religion, while still significant, seems to be waning. Voters “who see presidential candidates as religious express more favorable views toward those candidates than do voters who view them as not religious,” according to a September poll, Religion in Campaign ’08, released by the Pew Research Center. That same survey, however, “finds that candidates for the White House need not be seen as very religious to be broadly acceptable to the voting public.”

Pew also found that “social issues such as abortion and gay marriage continue to be greatly overshadowed in the presidential campaign by both domestic issues and the war in Iraq.”

That finding goes for white evangelicals. Though a majority, 56 percent, “says that social issues like abortion and gay marriage will be very important in their presidential voting decisions,” those issues lag behind domestic matters and the war in Iraq. Seventy-two percent of white evangelicals cite the economy and other domestic issues as very important, and 66 percent rate the war in Iraq as very important, according to the Pew study.

Among all Americans, 78 percent say “domestic issues such as the economy, health care and the environment will be very important” in deciding their vote, while 72 percent say the war in Iraq is very important.

The result of this switch in priorities, of course, could mean that candidates find it far more difficult to figure out how to win over evangelicals or Catholics as a bloc.

David D. Kirkpatrick described the disintegration of the religious right as a voting force in a New York Times Magazine piece headlined “The Evangelical Crackup.” Kirkpatrick, who has followed the conservative religious movement in recent years, recounted that political involvement on the part of evangelical Protestants is a relatively new phenomenon that seems, at least in recent years, to have reached a point of dissolution.

“The extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments. That disappointment in turn has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world -- over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, among approaches to ministry and theology, and between the generations.”

White would agree on the cause of the shift in focus. “What caused the turnaround? George W. Bush and one four letter word -- Iraq. Iraq has really become now, with Katrina, part of the political narrative, and the public gets the narrative.”

White cited two other factors that have helped shape the current scenario. The first involves Bush’s low approval rating. “Bush is toxic, poison in national politics. We’ve had other presidents as low as Bush,” whose approval ratings have been in the low 30 percent range for many months, “but never so low for so long,” said White. And not only does two-thirds of the country disapprove of Bush’s performance, “the strongest disapproval exceeds 50 percent,” said White. “I don’t see any indication of any future movement.”

Second, he said, is that Bush himself “set up the problem” by choosing Dick Cheney as vice president in 2000. “He has no obvious successor or heir apparent,” said White. According to White, that leaves many Republicans now wondering what’s more important, someone who shares their values, or fighting terrorism, or other elements of the domestic agenda. And that ultimately leads to the question: Who can win? “And in this environment,” he said, “the question is: Who can win against Hillary Clinton?”

Tom Roberts is NCR news director. His e-mail address is

Promoting the common good

While the Bush administration itself may be the cause of some of the shifts in this year’s political topography, some would also point to organizations such as Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, dedicated, as they put it, to “promoting the fullness of the Catholic social tradition in the public square.”

Alexia Kelley, executive director of the alliance, counts as partners some 30 “Catholic social justice leaders and groups across the country,” from Pax Christi to the Sisters of Mercy, from Maryknoll to Network. The group endorses past bishops’ statements on political responsibility, which have always incorporated the full range of social justice concerns from abortion and euthanasia to war and poverty.

It is clear, however, that in promoting the “fullness” of the agenda, the group, founded in 2005 in the wake of the election that was determined by “values voters,” focuses on those issues -- war and peace, the environment, poverty, education, health care -- that in the past have been left out of the “values debate.” They are also most often viewed as Democratic Party issues.

The nonpartisan group, said Kelley in a recent interview, is engaged in outreach to make the Catholic social justice tradition, often called the church’s best-kept secret, “better understood -- known in the public square.”

It is doing that by connecting Catholic social justice leaders with other Catholics at the state level; producing printed materials and maintaining a Web site; and by helping to organize a “national common good convention” planned for July 2008 in Philadelphia.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2007

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