After this week end, the 2020 US presidential election will be just three weeks away. Since Catholics – e.g. the anti-abortion crusade and Biden and the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court appointment – are much in the news, I thought it might be helpful to get a perspective on contemporary US Catholics. If Joe Biden Jr. is elected president, he will be the United States’ second Catholic president. The first of course was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35thpresident of the United States, elected in November 1960. 

In the United States today, Christians make up 65% of the total adult population; and 43% identify as Protestants and 20% as Catholics. (In 1960 about 25% were Catholic.) According to the Pew Research Center, about one-fifth of the total US adult population today is Catholic; but Catholicism in the United States has experienced a greater net loss, due to religious switching, than has any other US religious tradition. Already in  2015 a Pew Research report noted that nearly 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. That loss continues today especially among the young. Those who currently identify as Catholic are generally older and more conservative. Today’s priests and bishops educated and trained under the influence of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI tend to be right or very right of center. And they tend to oppose Democrats on issues of abortion, birth control, and gay marriage.

There still are, however, a great many US Catholics who say they want to see their church make significant changes, even when most US Catholic bishops oppose those changes. For example, six-in-ten US Catholics  say they think the church should allow priests to marry and should allow women to become priests. Just about 50% of US Catholics say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

Catholics in the United States are racially and ethnically diverse. Roughly six-in-ten Catholic adults are white, one-third are Latino/a, and smaller shares identify as black, Asian American, or belong to other racial and ethnic groups. 

The US political climate for Catholics has changed considerably since the days of JFK. Former Vice President Joe Biden Biden was born into a Catholic family, baptized a Catholic, went to Catholic schools, attends church, and presents himself to the world as a Catholic. He is hardly right of center. On the far right, however, is Amy Coney Barrett. If she ends up in the US Supreme Court, replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she will bring the number of Catholic supreme court justices up to six out of the nine. (Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch is Episcopalian but was raised Catholic.) Barrett has been strongly endorsed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. Cardinal Dolan also likes to boast about his friendly relationship with President Trump.

Currently there are 22 Catholics in the United States Senate, and 141 Catholics in the United States House of Representatives, including the current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Vice President Mike Pence, who describes himself as a “born-again, evangelical Catholic” was raised Catholic and a Democrat; but he converted to Protestantism in college and became a “Ronald Reagan conservative” Republican. 

Newton Leroy “Newt” Gingrich, who served as the 50th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, became a conservative Catholic in 2009. Newt, who is a co-chair of the advocacy group Catholics for Trump, became a Catholic thanks to his third wife, the conservative Catholic, Callista Gingrich, who is the United States Ambassador to the Holy See. William Barr, United States Attorney General, like Amy Coney Barrett is an extremely far-right Catholic; and Stephen K. Bannon, former chief strategist in the Donald Trump administration is also an arch conservative Catholic. And, last but not least, First Lady Melania Trump is a Catholic, making her the only Catholic First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in 2016, 52% of US Catholics backed Republican Donald Trump while 44% voted for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Catholics also narrowly backed the Republican George W. Bush over the Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

How does one characterize US Catholics today? 

According to the Pew Research Center, today’s US Catholics are split down the middle politically. Around half of Catholic registered voters (48%) describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party, while roughly the same share (47%) identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. 

White and Latino/a Catholics are very different politically. Nearly six-in-ten white Catholic registered voters (57%) identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, marking a big shift since 2008, when four-in-ten (41%) supported the GOP. Most Latino/a Catholic voters (68%), meanwhile, identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, a share that has remained fairly stable in the past decade. 

In a Pew Research poll conducted in late July and early August of this year, 54% of white Catholics said they approve of Trump’s performance as president, but 69% of Latino/a Catholics said they disapprove of the way he is handling his job. And 59% of white Catholic registered voters said they would vote for Trump, or lean that way. (What would they say today?) Among Latino/a Catholic registered voters, 65% said they would vote for Biden. 

I think it is helpful to understand that US Catholics are often more aligned with their political party than with the teachings of their church. On abortion, for example, 77% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholic adults say they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 63% of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The official position of the Catholic Church of course is strongly opposed to abortion. 

Partisanship also colors US Catholics’ perception of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Around six-in-ten US Catholics (59%) say they think Joe Biden is “very” or “somewhat” religious, according to a February 2020 survey. Far fewer Catholics overall (37%) say Trump is at least somewhat religious, though the gap between Republicans and Democrats on this question is huge (63% Republican vs 10% Democratic).

President Trump and his brand of Republicans have worked hard to attract those Catholics who have made  opposition to abortion the key issue above all other issues. This strategy likely will be on vivid display in coming days as Donald Trump pushes for the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the  Supreme Court. 

Over the years, former vice president Biden, in fact, has earned much criticism and correction from US bishops because of his positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Foremost among them have been the former Bishop of Wilmington Michael Saltarelli, Archbishop Charles Chaput from Philadelphia, and Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence. Tobin suggested in a tweet on August 11, 2020 that Biden is not even a Catholic: “Biden-Harris. First time in awhile that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.”

Biden, however, continues to stress his background as a Catholic and to build affinity with more open-minded Catholic voters. He stresses other aspects of Catholic teaching, not just abortion, like caring for the poor and vulnerable, welcoming immigrants and refugees, and supporting labor unions and welfare programs.

Hoping that Biden will become the second Catholic president of the United States, three dozen Catholic lawmakers, ambassadors, educators and nonprofit leaders have signed on to serve as national co-chairs of “Catholics for Biden.”  A further Catholic endorsement for Biden has come from Sr. Simone Campbell and the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. Campbell noted: “Catholics cannot be true to their faith and vote for Donald Trump in November. Every day, I see the cracks in our nation’s foundational values growing wider. President Trump is doing everything in his power to divide us, while our economy and health care systems collapse under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a spiritual crisis, and our faith and patriotism compel us to speak and to act.”

While President Trump pushes the anti-abortion agenda and reversing Roe vs Wade, presidential candidate Joe Biden wants to build on the progress made by the Affordable Care Act, which covers access to preventive care and contraceptives. He proposes that “the public option will cover contraception and a woman’s constitutional right to choose.” He has no difficulty reconciling that with his Catholic faith. As of 2019,  83% of religiously unaffiliated US Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (64%), six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and a slim majority of Catholics (56%).

Contemporary US Catholics are quite a religio-socio-political mix. The old political theory of a “Catholic vote” is dead. There is no “Catholic vote” in the sense of a bloc that moves predictably toward one party or the other. Despite a certain convergence of views among Catholics—a concern for social justice, a collective dedication to the value of the family—Catholics haven’t voted as a bloc since the early 1960s, when they solidly backed the Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. I suspect Biden realizes this. I am not so sure about Donald Trump.

Jack

7 thoughts on “US Catholics in National Politics

  1. Dear Jack,

    What an incredibly enlightening piece! This helps to understand the disconnect between “religion” and “politics” in terms of voting for your values. It seems to emphasize the ability to compartmentalize religious practice and political persuasion. I vividly remember studying the effects that immigration from predominantly Catholic countries; e.g., Ireland, Italy, etc. had on party affiliation with the Democratic Party benefiting primarily. Your analysis addresses how the “religion effect” is really diminishing. It does remind me of the story (real or apocryphal, I’m not sure) of John Kennedy campaigning and telling someone, “I’m going to talk with the nuns because they are Democrats. The bishops are all Republicans.” It seems like the closer one is to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, the more likely one is to be a Democrat. Rich Catholics seem to affiliate with Republican philosophy as much as non-Catholics do.

    You always share such fascinating and stimulating insights!!

    Peace,
    Frank

  2. Jack,

    Thank you for the comprehensive overview. I have shared it with friends and our Faith in Action group and I have gotten positive feed back. We are working diligently to convince local Catholics to not be “one-issue voters”. Unfortunately, some older and more conservative Catholics still follow the views of their bishops and are not able to discern for themselves. As you said, “the Catholic vote” is dead, but unfortunately some elements of it still are with us.

    Peace,
    Dennis

  3. I wonder about the political leanings of former Catholics is?? Every generation from the elderly to the young 20s??

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