Stalking the mythical ‘Catholic vote,’ yet again

GetReligion readers who frequent the CNN Belief blog know that it features a wide range of material, from hard news stories to essays by academics. A recent offering falls into this latter category, but I still think GetReligion readers will want to know about it since it focuses on a topic that frequently comes up for discussions on this blog.

This commentary piece was written by Stephen S. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, and ran under the headline: “The myth and reality of the Catholic vote.” Obviously, this is a topic that is closely related to all of the poll numbers that have been tossed around in the wake of the church-state showdown between the Obama White House and traditional believers in a wide range of faith groups, including traditional Catholics, many Eastern Orthodox leaders, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and others.

Schneck notes that Catholic voters, whoever they are, are supposed to be the great swing bloc in the American population. There is a problem, however:

… The idea of a Catholic bloc is patently ridiculous. As voters, American Catholics mirror the electorate as a whole, divided into Democrats, independents, and Republicans at about the same percentages as all Americans. And it’s hard to trace such political complexity to religious allegiance.

One explanation for why is the sheer number of Catholic voters and their now multigenerational assimilation into American society. About 35 million Catholics voted in 2008. That’s about 27% of all voters. …

By finally achieving that assimilation, Catholics in the last 50 years have lost much of their sense of special self-identity. For white Catholics, who are about 60% of the Catholic vote, their distinctiveness in class, education, income and even ethnicity has grown increasingly ambiguous in America’s famous melting pot.

The melting pot has even transformed Catholics’ relationship to their church. Polling numbers released Friday by CNN about the White House contraception dust-up illustrate this: Only 11% of Catholics polled said they should always obey official church teachings on moral issues like birth control and abortion. To put this differently, 88% of Catholics in the poll said that it’s OK for Catholics to make up their own minds about these moral issues. That represents a growing trend. In 1992 only 70% supported the “make up their own minds” argument. In 1999 it was 80%.

This is all pretty standard information. Schneck properly notes that one of the other major realities that must be taken into account — obviously — is the growth of the Latino population in Catholic pews here in the United States. Latino Catholics now make up about a third of all American Catholics.

The Latino vote, he concludes, is one of three discreet Catholic votes at play in modern American politics. It is a swing vote that often backs Democrats due to issues of economics and social justice.

Things get more complex when looking at the Anglos, however. For starters, Schneck notes 2011 research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicating that one-third of Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church through exit doors both to the secular left and the cultural right. That’s a solid 10 percent of the American electorate.

The other two camps of “Catholic voters,” he said, can be labeled “intentional Catholics” and “cultural Catholics.” This section of the story must be read carefully.

Some who leave still feel lingering allegiance to things Catholic, but many do not, and former Catholics do not have a distinctive political identity. But as a result of disaffiliation, many Catholics who remain with the church are “distilled.” More and more of those who remain are those who actively choose to embrace the church and its teachings. These “intentional Catholics” are the second of the three important groups of Catholic voters.

Largely white, with impressive education levels, mostly suburban and with moderate to high income levels, such Catholics are in evidence in weekly Mass attendance and parish activities. Politically active, intentional Catholic voters lean toward the Republican Party (with some youthful swing voters) and are motivated by economic issues and increasingly by opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration.

“Cultural Catholics” make up the third important group of Catholic voters. They are a complicated mix of mostly white Americans with lower levels of Mass attendance and higher levels of ambivalence toward Church authority.

To some degree, it is accurate to note that the “intentional” Catholics are simply more active in the life of the church. This is the old “pew gap” trend in which the more believers attend worship, the more likely they are — in voting booths — to be influenced by the so-called “culture war” issues. But does this mean that the “cultural” Catholics can simply be described as progressives?

Not really, according to Schneck:

Many culturally Catholic voters are at odds with both conservatives and liberals on many issues. They are more socially conservative than the majority of Americans, but many are put off by the more intense social conservatism of intentional Catholics and evangelicals. They are more economically populist than most Americans but are uncomfortable with the libertarian zeal of the tea party. They are alienated from the lifestyle liberalism of many progressives but remain supportive of unions and governmental programs for the middle class.

The bishops may have little role in these voters’ personal faith, but cultural Catholics look to the church for the sacraments that mark the turnings of their lives and for the traditions that connect generations. Their religious sensibility might almost be described as ethnic.

“Ethnic,” as opposed to “doctrinal”?

Now, once you have soaked up the professor’s take on this, feel free to contrast it with the viewpoint of that veteran K Street priest I interviewed a few years ago who posited four different Catholic votes. When I asked about the Latino vote, he said that he was convinced that there is no one Latino vote, either. In particular, he said that he thought Latinos who are highly active in the church, especially in terms of coming to Confession, tend to lean right on moral and cultural issues.

That grid, you may recall, looks like this:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but it is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

So, read and discuss. The main difference I see is that he has the “active” Catholics in one basic “intentional” group, while my veteran DC priest has them divided two ways, with the “sweats the details” being the only tiny segment of American Catholics who are consistently pro-Vatican day after day, controversy after controversy. Also, note that Schneck has some “ex-Catholics” headed to the right, into evangelical Protestantism.

IMAGE: Official White House photo.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Observer

    Could you put some round percentages on that grid ?

  • Julia

    There’s yet another division of self-described Catholics and even ex-Catholics that I’ve never seen in posts here.

    There are the vast majority whose religious education ended in high school or earlier with only weekly classes for First Communion and Confirmation. They have not kept up with happenings since then nor have they read any books about Catholicism aimed at adults. That’s almost all the Catholics I know, sad to say. This would even include un-curious Catholic University graduates and most what you describe as intentional Catholics.

    Then there are those who can really explain what they believe, who are familiar to a degree with the intellectual history of the Church, who check out the latest speeches and books by the Pope. This class includes those who agree and those who dissent – it’s all those who are intellectually curious, have read and understand the major underpinnings of their Church’s teachings. People who are familiar with who the Church Fathers are, etc.

    Many of the Catholics who are telling pollsters that they agree or disagree with the bishops on the HHS issue don’t even understand the principles involved. We’ve had a few generations of Catholics who didn’t learn the basics of their faith and there are others who don’t particularly care to get into all that.

  • Bain Wellington

    That’s a really offensive pic at the top of the post, tmatt. It’s not funny, it’s not smart, it’s not witty. Try reading out loud exactly what it pretends to depict.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Julia, I think the Catholics you describe are part of the Cultural, Sunday-morning and “sweat the details” American Catholics of tmatt’s K Street priest’s description. What you describe is precisely why they are Cultural and Sunday-morning Catholics and why they are intentional, or “sweats the details” Catholics. I don’t think those experiences segregate them into different classifications of “Catholic”.

    And tmatt, I have to agree with Bain Wellington – the illustration is offensive.

  • Dan

    I don’t know if it is true that “sweat the details” Catholics almost always back “the Vatican” when it comes to issues of faith and liturgy. They certainly do not understand themselves to have allegiance to “the Vatican” as an institution. Indeed, if you read Catholic blogs you will find that the “sweat the detail Catholics” often complain about the prevalence within the curia of liberal-leaning prelates who, it is claimed, seek to undermine any tradition-oriented things that the Pope might be contemplating. This from time to time is a significant issue. For example, in the run-up to the issuance of the instruction Universae Ecclesiae (which clarifies some aspects of Summorum Pontificum (which liberalized the use of the old Latin Mass)), there was much consternation among “sweat the details” Catholics concerning shadowy liberal forces within the Vatican who were seeking, it was claimed, to undermine Summorum Pontificum. There are many other examples of situations when “sweat the details” Catholics have viewed “the Vatican” with suspicion.The allegiance of “sweat the detail Catholics” is not to the Vatican or any institution or person but, rather, is to the Magesterium (the teachings of the bishops in communion with the Pope).

    The recent “scandal” concerning leaked documents and in-fighting at the Vatican underscores the absence of a monolithic Vatican to which a Catholic (of any variety) has allegiance.

    Separately, an interesting aspect to the politics of it all is that Rick Santorum is an “intentional Catholic” squarely in the “sweat the details” camp. Presumably among the “sweat the details” Catholics Santorum swamps Mitt Romney and, if nominated, would completely overwhelm President Obama. (This could could make for some interesting and informative exit polling (Did you vote for Santorum? How often do you go to confession?))

  • tmatt

    The photo is from a site on anti-Catholicism. I thought it captured the negative attitude many commentators have about Catholics in public life.

    In other words, I knew it was offensive. That was the point.

    I will, however, change it since no one seems to have read the credit tag at the end.

    I am sure that the new photo will offend a small percentage of Catholics, as well.

  • Bill

    I’d be interested in a geographic breakdown of the grid. Some areas of the country tend to be liberal, some conservative. Would, for instance, the Cultural Catholics swing Democrat in New England and Republican in the Mountain West? What would the Venn Diagram look like?

  • Julia

    What Dan said.

    In tmatt’s list, a “sweats the details” Catholic sounds like somebody who knows and wants to follow all the rules.

    But there are Catholics who are well-versed in Catholic intellectual history and philosphy, who read encyclicals and apologetics, who knew who Cardinal Newman was before he was sainted and probably have read The Idea of the University. They not only know the rules, they also know and are interested in the back story. These folks are just as often liberal as conservative, depending on the issue under discussion. These folks don’t fit into any of the categories listed here.

  • Bain Wellington

    Why on earth would your replacement pic be thought to be offensive, tmatt? Please just accept honest criticism in the spirit in which it is made, otherwise the whole point of the blog is being undermined. Nothing in your post makes any assertion as to “the negative attitude many commentators have about Catholics in public life”.