The Catholic Political Identity

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is excerpted from the ground-breaking “Report on the Catholic Vote in America,” commissioned by Crisis. To receive the full report, call 202-861-7790.

Ralph Reed had a vision. The former executive director of the Christian Coalition was a central participant in the forging of a conservative political identity for the nation’s growing number of born-again, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians, and the inheritor of a process set in motion by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in the ’70s.

Reed’s vision was of a Catholic and Christian conservative political collaboration, and this vision lead him to invest substantially in the founding of an organization to do for Catholics what the Christian Coalition had done for evangelical conservatives. Reed observed recently that a candidate for president espousing a socially conservative agenda can win every born-again, evangelical, and fundamentalist vote there is, but without the support of Catholics, that candidate is going nowhere.

Reed is literally correct. The heart of what the media condescendingly refer to as the “religious right” are the religiously-active, non-Catholic, born-again Christians. This constituency accounted for 18 percent of the Presidential vote in 1996, 68 percent of which went to Bob Dole. Had Dole won all of this vote, his national total would have been 45 percent, as opposed to the 41 percent he actually received—still, though, not enough to win. And, of course, in practical terms such unanimity is’ impossible to achieve. In Ronald Reagan’s landslide 1984 victory, the electoral high-water mark for conservatives, Republicans received 78 percent of this religiously-active, conservative Christian vote.

Catholic conservatives shared with Reed a frustration that religiously-active Catholics did not appear to be joining other religiously-active Christians in a migration toward the Republican Party and conservative habits of voting. In point of fact, however, a subtle realignment was beginning to take place underneath the radar of most political commentators. The Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, now the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, was the first polling organization to publicly quantify this migration that has so transformed American politics. In an October 1994 report, they noted that the opinion cluster dubbed “Moralists” constituted 20 percent of registered voters, double what it had been in 1987, “as more religious and cultural conservatives—many of them former Democrats—have identified with the GOP.”

What caused active Catholic voters to shift their weight in the last two presidential elections, first away from George Bush, and then away from Bill Clinton? An exhaustive analysis of the data in the National Election Study—which conducted interviews before and after the 1988 presidential election—and the ABS exit polls that year tell us little. These migrating Catholics had no distinctive political orientation or cluster of issues about which they felt strongly that could account for their defection from Reagan’s heir-apparent. Nonetheless, a substantial number of Catholics, particularly active Catholics, voted for Michael Dukakis. All that the data can tell us about this decision is that they simply didn’t like George Bush very much, or perhaps felt more comfortable with Michael Dukakis: urbanite, Northeasterner, Greek Orthodox.

Catholic Political Attitudes

If this explanation doesn’t satisfy us, it’s because politics is ultimately about content, not context. Jeff Greenfield, ABC News political commentator and author of the best book available on electoral political strategy (Playing to Win), and Dick Morris (Behind the Oval Office) agree on this point: issues determine the outcome of elections. So what are the issues that move active Catholics?

We can certainly make some generalizations about the political attitudes of active Catholics. Samuel Freedman went through this exercise in The Inheritance, his lyrical account of how three Catholic families migrated over the course of three generations from blue collar, union, hard-core Democrats to college-educated, politically active Republicans. Wittingly or not, Freedman’s three anecdotal case histories chronicle the sins that the Democrat Party committed in the eyes of active Catholics. Tim Carey, from Irish roots in Hell’s Kitchen and Ossining, New York, became a Republican in reaction to the anti-Vietnam War protests. The Maebys and Obryckis, Polish Catholics from Baltimore via Albany, became Republican as the result of affirmative action and redistributive economic policies. Frank Trotta, Italian from New Rochelle, New Jersey, became Republican over the permissiveness and moral “pluralism” evident in the housing project where his father worked.

We can make these generalizations about voters who are active Catholics:

They are distinctively patriotic. American exceptionalism—the idea the America is a country with a historic mission and unique global importance—is deeply felt.

Surprisingly, they are not necessarily pro-military, despite the fact that many have had first-hand experience in the military.

Active Catholics are not anti-government. They have favorable opinions of the institutions of government, and they do not favor indiscriminate budget-cutting.

Active Catholics are not in favor of unbridled free markets, even though many consider themselves conservatives. Catholics tend to be concerned with the outcome of policies; they are not economically laissez-faire, because they are interested less in the process than in the results and are not reluctant to try to manage the economy for socially beneficial results.

Active Catholics are tolerant and do not savor political villains.

Active Catholics are concerned about the plight of the poor, yet overwhelmingly support recent welfare reforms.

Active Catholics are opposed to job quotas and other elements of affirmative action that offend the American ideal of equality.

Active Catholics accept the existence of an absolute standard of morality. This is, perhaps, the most profound yet subtle of all their characteristics, leading to a certain moral confidence, less confusion about the difference between pluralism and tolerance, and greater resistance to the claim of a moral right to do wrong, a central tenet of contemporary liberalism.

Catholics are often accused of being big government liberals. As we have seen, active Catholics are not liberals, but they do resist anti-government rhetoric. This, coupled with their support for economic intervention, raises the question, “in what sense are active Catholics conservatives?”

A Kind of Conservatism

To answer this question we have to look beyond the data. Many Catholics are conservatives in the Lincolnian sense of the term: an appreciation that the “moral ecology” of the community, as Catholic philosopher Robert George writes in Making Men Moral, and the ability of its citizens to “pursue [authentic] happiness” are inextricably linked. These Catholic conservatives understand that there is not a choice to be made between individual rights and collective interests—they are indivisible. Further, they are not comfortable with the contemporary tendency to define conservatism as an anti-government, pro-individualist program.

Here is what political philosopher Harry Jaffa says about Lincoln’s conception of the ends of government in Crisis of the House Divided:

[T]he Declaration [of Independence] conceives of just government mainly in terms of the relief from oppression. Lincoln conceives of just government far more in terms of the requirement to achieve justice in the positive sense; indeed, according to Lincoln, the proposition “all men are created equal” is so lofty a demand that the striving for justice must be an ever-present requirement of the human and political condition.

The question of the Catholic political identity is very much wrapped in America herself. Charles Morris’s history of the Catholic Church in America, American Catholic, is disappointing in this respect. The rigor of his analysis collapses altogether in the penultimate chapter: After building a spectacular case for the success of the Church in America, he fails to ask the obvious question, “What is it about America that the Catholic Church has found here such fertile ground?”

The answer is that America is a Catholic project—which is not to say the American project is antithetical to other religions, but that it is integrally consistent with the relation of Catholic spirituality to politics. As is so often the case, Alexis de Tocqueville provides the explanation:

[Catholics] constitute the most republican and the most democratic class in the United States. . . . The Catholic faith places all human capabilities upon the same level; it subjects the wise and the ignorant, the man of genius and the vulgar crowd, to the details of the same creed; it imposes the same observances upon the rich and the needy, it inflicts the same austerities upon the strong and the weak; it listens to no compromise with mortal man, but, reducing all the human race to the same standards, it confounds all distinctions of society at the foot of the same altar, even as they are confounded in the sight of God.

Pro-choice Republican activists bring Catholic anxiety about contemporary conservatism into sharp relief: Many justify their pro-abortion position by saying, “I thought conservatism meant smaller government.” But the active Catholic conception of conservatism is not the creation of a society that makes the world safe for abortion. In addition, active Catholics often think Republicans sound too materialistic; Republicans rarely speak of social integrity and our interdependence, a rhetorical theme Mario Cuomo is particularly accomplished at sounding. Overall, active Catholics are suspicious of the Republican fascination with economic policy.

Active Catholics recognize the United States is in the midst of a societal crisis; indeed, polls have found that 80 percent of the American public agrees that “there is a crisis of declining individual morality in the country today.” What confuses pollsters and politicians about this crisis are the many manifestations of it—drugs, crime, deteriorating schools, incivility, infanticide, and now cold-blooded shootings in the school yard. Active Catholics seem especially concerned that these phenomena are symptoms of a moral and cultural breakdown.

Republican Resistance to a Catholic Strategy

A debate over the future of the Republican Party has been joined. Articles have recently appeared suggesting the Southern base of the Republican Party is a major impediment to its further success: Christopher Caldwell wrote of “the Southern Captivity of the GOP” in the June issue of the Atlantic Monthly, while John Harwood published an article in the Wall Street Journal this August titled, “South’s Dominance of GOP Stirs Some Alarm in Party.” Kieran Mahoney & Associates, a New York City-based Republican political consultancy with ties to Governor George Pataki and Senator Al D’Amato, received attention last summer with a survey purporting to show that a “moral agenda” imperils support for the party in the Northeast.

Ironically, liberal Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Celinda Lake conducted a survey this summer on behalf of Emily’s List, a feminist political fundraising group, that draws the opposite conclusion. They wrote in their analysis that an increasing public focus on moral issues makes a Democratic takeover of the House this year unlikely, a stunning but doubtless accurate admission.

Much of the criticism of the role of Christian conservatives within the Republican Party has more to do with an aversion to the increasing reliance of the party upon the religiously active for its votes—a long standing trend—than it does with an authentic concern with what is in the best interests of the Republican Party. These arguments, while provocative, are thinly grounded in any kind of data and are not based on a rigorous analysis of the costs and benefits. The real agenda here is to make sure that the Republican Party remains a safe place for libertarians.

These instances of complaints against the Southern wing of the Republican Party point the way toward greater Republican success in the Northeast. However, Republicans would be unwise to trade their increasing political hold on the Southern states for gains in the Northeast. Most Democratic strategists would like nothing better than for Republicans to alienate their more robust base of support.

Traditional Republican rhetoric often does not maximize the party’s potential appeal among active Catholics. Yet the prescription that the party avoid any commentary on America’s social crisis—a crisis brought into even sharper relief by the Lewinsky scandal—is entirely wrong-headed. The country, like active Catholics, does not believe that tax cuts will cure our ills. By ignoring the cultural crisis upon which voters are singularly focused today, Republicans risk ceding to the Democrats this cluster of social issues.


  • Steven Wagner

    At the time this article was published, Steve Wagner was president of QEV Analytics, a public opinion research firm in Washington, D.C.

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