How to Recover the Catholic Vote

One of the reasons that same-sex marriage laws have proliferated so quickly is that their proponents are concentrated geographically in the nation’s power centers: New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Geography can be determinative in politics. Faithful Catholics are numerous, but we’re too spread out. This has weakened our position both as a voting bloc and a lobbying force, and contributed to the perception that our days in the public square are numbered.

Once, there was a “Catholic vote.” In cities like New York, Baltimore, and Boston, Catholic voters raised local politicians to power. Mayors and governors sought the approbation of their bishops, who in turn exercised significant influence over their flocks. As hard as it is to believe now, an American president once feared the ability of a Michigan priest with a radio microphone to put an early end to his New Deal.

Those days are gone—long gone. Dispersed, assimilated, and for the most part un-catechized, American Catholics now vote in ways that can’t be predicted by their religious affiliation. Catholics have supported the winner of the popular vote in every presidential election since 1972. Including Barack Obama. Twice.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

So, there is no Catholic vote. Not anymore. Catholics have become an indistinct force in American politics at the very moment of the Church’s greatest vulnerability. In part this is the result of real changes in the larger culture. But it’s also true that Catholics—not just those who identify as such in phone surveys—haven’t been vigilant about preserving a consistent political identity. Most of the prominent “Catholic” politicians in the United States support abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Often, those holding views consistent with Church teachings on abortion and marriage have been mocked and demonized.

Have we been good about publicly rising to their defense? Not really.

Catholics who are serious about policy need to get smart and get tough about politics—and we need to do it fast. There is no reason to believe that the remaining years of the Obama presidency will be any easier on us than those just gone by which, let’s face it, have been a disaster. If we don’t develop a serious and sustainable political strategy soon, the battle will be over and we will have lost.

Who knows? It may already be over. We may already have lost. But there may still be time for a last stand.

As I see it, there are two ways to revive American Catholic political power: (1) re-catechize those Catholics who have migrated away from the faith with an emphasis on fidelity to the Magisterium, or (2) get faithful Catholics to migrate and, by so doing, magnify the effect of their votes. The former has been tried for the last 40 years without success; the latter may not be as crazy as it sounds.

There are 75 million Catholics in the United States, almost 25 percent of the population. Even if only half of us are committed to the Magisterium, that’s more than enough to have a big effect on the political direction of the nation. The problem is that all politics is local and our voting power is watered down by the distance between us. Libertarians have the Free State Project, which aims to get 20,000 people with an interest in limited government to move to New Hampshire for the express purpose of creating a constituency with some sway in that state’s legislature. Catholics could try something similar by selecting a state, a county, a congressional district, or even a diocese, and mounting a campaign to get politically engaged Catholics to relocate. If enough do, substantive and faithful Catholic leaders could be elected to public office in that locale, establishing a strong voting bloc and, with any luck, inspiring imitators.

Politics is about supply and demand—if demand exists for leaders with Catholic views on abortion, marriage, and the plight of the poor, then the supply will follow. But winning at politics is about math—a few hundred voters here and there can make a tremendous difference. That’s why so much thought and effort is put into congressional redistricting. A Catholic equivalent of the Free State Project would be a positive step toward establishing a solid base of Catholic political power in the United States. It would be the first thing in a long time that didn’t feel like defeat. And it wouldn’t take much: there are a lot more Catholics in the United States than there are libertarians.

Ensuring our survival in the public square will require brave and faithful Catholics to step up, sally forth, and get their hands dirty doing politics. Politics leads to power, and power is what it will take to beat back these unprecedented intrusions on our basic rights and constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms.

This is not a job for the bishops. This is a job for Catholics who are interested not just in fighting the battle, but in winning it.

The bishops have valiantly protested the Obama administration’s attacks on our religious freedom, but, sadly, it has not been enough. Their attempts have sought merely to restore an already vanished status quo. The seriousness of the challenge required a more vigorous and wide ranging response. It’s unclear why the bishops have been so reluctant to meet steel with steel.

Whatever explains the bishops’ motivations, Obama has no incentive to parley with them. Despite the warnings of the bishops, despite the direct assault on conscience rights, despite the abrogation of religious liberty—despite all of this—51 percent of so-called Catholics voted to return him to office in 2012. There is no Catholic vote.

Merely rolling back the HHS mandate will not be enough to protect American Catholics from the next attack on religious liberty when it comes. We need a proactive legislative agenda around the issues that matter to us—respect for life, marriage, and the plight of the poor—and politicians that can steward such an agenda. We need to build a base of power rooted in a specific place, because that’s how the American system works. We need to be bold and decisive. And we need to find the courage to stand up for politicians who take the risk of defending life and traditional marriage. Some nominal Catholics will probably leave the fold because of this, but we’re talking about politics here, not crochet.

There is blood in the water. The sharks are circling. If we want there to be a Catholic vote once again, we have to do more than just pray.


  • Matthew Hennessey

    Matthew Hennessey is a writer from New Canaan, CT, and a graduate of Hunter College and Fordham University. You can follow him on Twitter @matthennessey.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...