Catholic Voter Trends

The book written by Steven Millies, who we heard speak on October 30, 2018.

      As we have established throughout this semester, the Catholic vote has always been diverse, and while there have been fluctuations towards the right or the left, Catholics have always landed on both sides of every issue. Despite the positions taken by the bishops or the Pope, many lay Catholics did not agree with their decisions or, more importantly, did not base their voting on specific divisive issues in the Church, such as abortion. Steven Millies, author of Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump, commented that the Roe decision affected the Catholic vote, though not forgetting that there has never been a purely defined Catholic vote, with perhaps the Kennedy election as the exception. With the rise of conservatism post- WWII, Catholics slowly began to join the conservative movement; however, it was not an immediate switch of party allegiance nor was it a complete switch, as many Catholics remain liberal and continue to vote for Democratic candidates.

Overall, I do agree with the scholars’ interpretation of primary sources; however, occasionally I feel that the interpretation fails to recognize the other side of the issue. Particularly with Catholics and their voting patterns as well as continuity and changes in their opinions’ on issues, some of the texts we read sway heavily in one direction, so it is easy to believe that more Catholics supported an issue than did in reality. Another problem is the disjunction between the opinions handed down by the bishops and the Pope and the reality for laypeople on whether they support the theological reading of current political issues and will thus implement or vote based on the decisions of the Catholic hierarchy. Sometimes, it is difficult to discern which more represents the reality of the Catholic Church in relation to politics. In my opinion, statistics would be helpful, particularly when discussing voting, because then I could see how many voted for certain political candidates or parties as well as polling on Catholic support for certain political issues.

The Second Vatican Council in 1962.

The narrative that has been taught is that Catholics were supporters of the New Deal and the Democratic Party, but during the latter half of the 20th century, the rise of the modern conservative movement was supported by Catholics, and Catholics largely switched to the Republican Party due to the culture wars and the rise in importance of social issues. While this could be accurate to some extent based on the outcome of Vatican II and other writings by the bishops and the Pope, many laypeople disagreed with the position of the Church, particularly women on Humanae Vitae, and supported social issues such as birth control, gay rights, and abortion. Slowly, Catholicism began to connect liberalism with secularism, so that “by 1945, Catholic liberals found themselves increasingly out of step with the Church hierarchy” (Doody 9). As secularism was a rising concern in the Catholic Church in the 1940s onward, many Catholics rejected an association with liberalism and had concerns about the direction of American politics. Colleen Doody, author of “Detroit’s Cold War: The Origins of Postwar Conservatism” remarks that this partial change in political party affiliation for some Catholics made sense as “Catholics during the 1940s and 1950s thus expressed two crucial elements of modern conservatism- anti-Communism and traditionalism” (77). Both of these concerns exponentially rose following WWII because of the rise of the Soviet Union, and accompanying Red Scare in America led by J. Edgar Hoover, as well as the fear of women leftover in the workforce after the war effort.

William Buckley, the editor of the National Review.

The fear of communism, and that it threatened the Church, was a widespread fear in the United States, and it managed to bring Catholics together of varying ethnicities. However, from the readings these past few weeks and all of the talks that I have attended, it appears that Catholics were more divided on traditionalism than on anti-communism. While many Catholics strongly supported the reinforcement of traditional gender roles, there were many others who adamantly disagreed with Humane Vitae and the Church’s position on such as such as birth control, men being head of the household, and abortion. As much of the Catholic press and the voice of Catholic politics were men, such as William Buckley at the National Review, it is unsurprising that “Catholic newspapers and public speakers during the period immediately after World War II repeatedly warned that the nation would come to a crashing halt if traditional gender roles were not reasserted” (13). As the growing Republican Party campaigned on a platform including traditional gender roles, it is logical that many Catholics grew to associate themselves with the new right. However, that was not the only voting issue, and as many Catholics disagreed with the Church’s stances, it was not a complete and total switch to the Republican Party following WWII. In fact, many Catholics identify, support, and/or vote for Democratic candidates every election.

The electoral map for the 1960 presidential election.

My sense of the Catholic vote is that to some voters, being Catholic is the most important aspect of their identity to consider while voting while for others it could be their race, gender identity, immigration status, or another factor. Therefore, the distinct Catholic vote is typically non-existent. The exception is Kennedy’s 1968 election where he took nearly 80% of the Catholic vote and succeeded in becoming the first Catholic elected to the presidency. However, after that election, the Catholic vote once again split, and Catholic candidates, such as John Kerry in 2004, could not count on winning over voters merely because both identified as Catholic. Read more about the Catholic vote throughout American history here. William Buckley, who Patrick Allitt in “American Catholics and the New Conservatism of the 1950s” writes about, is a decent example of the New Conservatism that arose in the 1950s as well as an example of the emerging Catholic right. The majority of the American public and “virtually the whole American Catholic population in the 1950s was ardently anti-communist, as was Pope Pius XII”, so Catholics could easily agree with the Church and the American majority on this issue and strongly advocate for it through civic participation and in the government (Allitt 10). Opposing communism provided an opportunity for Catholics to move away from the liberal left in order to oppose secularism and join the growing right.

Supreme Court Justice, and Catholic, William Brennan, Jr.

Although there has only been one Catholic president, many justices on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) have been Catholics. Concerns remain that Catholic justices’ faith and relationship with the Pope will sway their judicial decisions, so that they won’t be objective; however, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. is a fantastic example to show that Catholic justices are not anymore more swayed by their own personal opinions based on their religious tradition than any of the other justices. When Brennan was first nominated, there was fear regarding whether “Brennan could be trusted to follow the Constitution rather than the Church in instances where the two might disagree” (Mills 3). Samuel A. Mills, author of “Parochiaid and the Abortion Decisions: Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. versus the U.S. Catholic Hierarchy”, investigated this fear by examining the decisions of Justice Brennan during his time on the Supreme Court. The conclusion was that in many court cases, Brennan was the deciding vote, and in many historic cases, including Roe v. Wade, he voted against the Catholic Church. In 1971, Brennan voted the majority in Lemon v. Kurtzman which was the first time that “the Court had ruled government aid to parochial schools unconstitutional” (Mills 12). This decision was not supported by the clergy, including Cardinal Terence Cooke who was the Archbishop of New York.

Protests after Roe v. Wade in opposition to the legalization of abortion.

Another court case that Brennan voted in the majority in contradiction to Catholic teachings was in Roe v. Wade, the landmark case legalizing abortion. Abortion was more accepted by Protestant and Jewish clergy than Catholic, so abortion opposition is linked with Catholicism more so than with other Abrahamic religions. Immediately following Roe, the American Catholic bishops “launched a massive political campaign designed to reverse the decision” (Mills 15). This included a pastoral message “calling for civil disobedience of any law requiring abortion” as well as a reaffirmation “that any woman who underwent an abortion would be subjected to excommunication, and at least two Catholic publications called for the excommunication of Justice Brennan” (Mills 17). Although the Catholic clergy strongly advocated for a reversal of the Roe decision, it is less clear on whether the American Catholic populace also held such strong anti-legal abortion opinions. Even on the issue of abortion, Catholics, including Catholics in government as evidenced by Justice Brennan, fell on both sides of the issue and varied on how much their Catholic faith played a role in those beliefs.

While there are diverse Catholic views on abortion, it is easier to define the Catholic position on abortion as pro-life, than it is to determine the Protestant or Jewish stance because they are not as hierarchical as Catholicism. However, Catholicism in American politics is larger than just abortion. In the article “God Save This Honorable Court: Religion as a Source of Judicial Policy Preferences” by William Blake, uses statistics to draw conclusions on Catholic justices’ voting trends. While there has been fear in the past that Catholic justices would vote based on Catholic theological teaching instead of on constitutional legality, this has been unfounded. Justices with other faith backgrounds do not vote more objectively than Catholics on the Supreme Court; however, unsurprisingly, “religion might shape the development of judicial ideology” (Blake 11). Catholic justices are not more influenced by their religion than other justices. While the U.S. Bishops, and likely the Pope, would be grateful if Catholic justices, and Catholics in other levels of government, would put their Catholic faith at the forefront of their decisions, this has not been the case. Another attempt to control the Catholic electorate was in 2007 when:

“the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (2007a, 11) has also published a document urging ordinary Catholics to vote according to their religious values. The voter guide states, “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position” (Mills 3).

The difficulty lies in what to do when two intrinsic evils are favored by two opposing candidates and whether Catholic voters should vote with the Bishops even if they themselves do not support the Catholic Church’s stance on a particular. Arguably, the Catholic vote only existed with the Kennedy election, and despite attempts by the clergy to direct Catholic voters, many vote based on their own interpretation of the values of their faith and their personal beliefs on certain issues. These include issues such as birth control and abortion which have been equated with the Catholic Church due to its immediate and intense opposition to both through the text of Humanae Vitae. The policy preferences of laypeople and the clergy is diverse and is unlikely to converge again like it did with the election of President John F. Kennedy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s