Catholics make up the largest religious denomination in this country-65 million. They are also one-third of the electorate in a presidential election, some 30 million. Yet in more than 200 years, a Catholic priest has never served as chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In December, an 18-member bipartisan committee gave its top recommendation to Fr. Timothy O’Brien, a political science professor at Marquette University, for the job of House chaplain. When House Speaker Hastert, Majority Leader Armey, and Minority Leader Gephart chose the Presbyterian minister Rev. Charles Wright over Fr. O’Brien, charges of anti-Catholic bigotry broke out, fueled in part by the press comments of Fr. O’Brien after he was not chosen. But when Rep. Henry Hyde, a highly respected Catholic, raised the same question, Catholics took notice.
This controversy comes at an awkward moment for the GOP. Its leading presidential contender, Gov. George W. Bush, has already shown a strong pull on the decisive Catholic swing vote. Our Catholic Voter Report indicates that up to 40 percent of the Catholic vote, twelve million, can swing from one party to another in presidential elections. Democrats would be delighted to undercut Bush’s appeal by adding anti-Catholic prejudice to the list of complaints normally aimed at Republican conservatives.
The full House will be voting on who will be the House chaplain when they return from recess later this month. It appears from the comments of various Democratic members that they intend to make a major issue out of the choice of Rev. Wright over Fr. O’Brien.
When the Democrats raise the issue of anti-Catholicism on the House floor, they will be touching a deep nerve among this nation’s Catholics. The Democratic Party was the traditional home for most Catholics until the late 60s, when they slowly began to migrate into the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Today, Catholics make up the largest single Republican constituency—about 31 percent of the party.
But the size of the remaining swing vote indicates hesitation and discomfort about the fit of Catholics in the Republican Party. Our research indicates that Catholics who basically agree with the conservative social values of the GOP are often turned off by the harshness of Republican rhetoric, a preoccupation with economic matters, and vituperative attacks on government programs aimed at the needy. In short, Catholics remain unconvinced of Republican compassion.
Selection of the House chaplain gave Republicans the opportunity to reach out to Catholics and to refashion the image of a party frequently portrayed as in the clutches of the religious right. Instead, the House leadership provided Democrats with an opportunity to begin recapturing a generation of Catholics grown accustomed to voting for, but not comfortable with, the Republican Party. Democrats can paint a picture of a WASPy party hopelessly out of touch with this nation’s religious diversity.
In a January 3 letter to Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, Rep. Armey explained that his decision to vote for Rev. Wright over Fr. O’Brien was Wright’s “interpersonal skills and pastoral experiences” versus O’Brien’s 22 years as a professor of political science. As Armey explained to me, he never focused on the denominational ties of the candidates but on their qualifications to be a pastor to House members.
The political turmoil and Catholic backlash following the selection of Wright came as a surprise to the House leadership—it shouldn’t have. The GOP has gradually become the home of Catholic voters whose social conservatism is closely intertwined with their Catholic identity. The voter concerns that bring Catholics closer to the GOP are directly connected to issues informed by their Catholic faith: This includes not only the defense of life but also the general social decay caused by the decline in morality.
The blunder of the GOP leadership was not the result of anti-Catholic prejudice but of its lack of awareness of where Catholics voters are moving and why. Rep. Armey’s deliberate inattention to the religious affiliation of the candidates tells the story. The GOP doesn’t need to examine its conscience, but its leaders had best start doing their homework. For the last 35 years Catholics have slowly joined the conservative movement, but the GOP has yet to register this fact. No wonder Catholics are feeling hesitant to make the GOP their home, when their support goes unnoticed.