What the Election Revealed

The election of 2004 was remarkable, among other things, for a highly successful counterattack by religious believers against political and cultural domination by secularists. Catholics had a central part in this electoral uprising. And despite some post-election secularist attempts to explain away the role of moral values in what happened, the election may have been a turning point in America’s culture war. Almost certainly it was a turning point for the Catholic Church in the United States.

Before taking a close look at these matters, it’s important to underline two fundamental facts.

One is that the kingdom of God will never be perfectly realized in this life—and certainly not in the second term of George W. Bush. It would therefore be not just risky but wrong for the Church to become locked in the embrace of any political party or politician, especially one with a record as mixed as Bush’s in his first four years. The second fact is that, even so, religious believers are seriously obliged to do what they can to make this world a better place, and political action is a key part of that. The idea that politics is too dirty a game for the spiritually elect is a grievous mistake.

Last November 2, political involvement by American Catholics looked something like this: According to the much-maligned exit polls, 52 percent of Catholic voters voted for Bush and 47 percent for his Democratic opponent, John F. Kerry—the reverse of four years earlier, when Al Gore got 50 percent of the Catholic vote and Bush 46 percent. Predictably, Bush did even better among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, who gave him 55 percent of their votes. Bush also picked up a comparatively healthy 44 percent of the votes of Hispanics, most of them Catholics. (For comparison’s sake, in 2004 Bush got 59 percent of the Protestant vote overall and 78 percent of the white evangelical/born-again vote. The numbers among all voters who attend religious services weekly were 58 percent for Bush, 41 percent for Kerry. )

At least as noteworthy was the fact that—again according to the exit polls 22 percent of voters said “moral values” were the most important issue for them. That was more than any other issue. The Pew Research Center, working from a post-election poll, said the figure was 27 percent for moral values when voters were given a list of issues to choose from, but it dropped to 14 percent when people were simply asked what issue mattered most to them.

Some secular commentators said this showed that moral values weren’t so important after all, but that claim was undercut by others who went on raging against the moral values vote. However you slice it, morality mattered an awful lot in this election to an awful lot of people—and those to whom it mattered most went overwhelmingly for Bush.

The Divided Catholics

Catholics, approximately 27 percent of the electorate, contributed greatly to the outcome. What that meant to Bush and Kerry is obvious. What it means to the Catholic Church may not immediately be so clear. Something that happened last October 13 in Tempe, Arizona, during the third presidential debate suggests an answer to that.

CBS newsman Bob Schieffer asked Senator Kerry how he felt about the fact that some Catholic bishops were telling their people they’d commit a sin by voting for a pro-choice politician like him. Pointing out, as he’d often done before, that he was a Catholic and a former altar boy, Kerry gave a rambling response in which he said in part:

I believe that I can’t legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith. What is an article of faith for me is not something I can legislate on somebody who doesn’t share that article of faith….

Now my faith affects everything I do and choose. There’s a great passage of the Bible that says, What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead. And I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people.

That’s why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.

Next day I got an e-mail from a disgusted friend: “Isn’t it great having Kerry explain it all to us?”

“He’s a representative figure,” I replied.

So he was. As a self-caricaturing practitioner of moral incoherence, John Kerry exemplified the split between professed religious belief and real-life behavior that’s grown wider and deeper for millions of American Catholics since the Second Vatican Council deplored its existence four decades ago. By the time of the Tempe debate, listening to Kerry’s gabbled dichotomies about faith and politics was like watching such skilled equivocators as John F. Kennedy and Mario Cuomo perform in putty noses and baggy pants.

This is what made the election of 2004 so desperately important for the Church. The consequences Kerry’s election would have had for abortion, Supreme Court nominations, and other “moral values” issues were clear. Less often remarked were the consequences for the Church. If Kerry had won, his way of being Catholic would have been enshrined as normative for a multitude of his coreligionists. As it is, the leaders of the Church still have a chance, slim but real, to get the Catholic identity thing right—if they care to make the effort and still know how.

Even so, millions of Catholics did vote for Kerry. Three reasons stand out.

The ethically respectable, though certainly debatable, reason was the belief that Bush was a failed president who couldn’t be trusted with power for another four years. Fear and loathing toward the war in Iraq and anger about tax cuts for the well-to-do in the face of soaring budget deficits combined with other issues to produce this assessment.

The other reasons Catholics had for supporting Kerry were not as respectable.

One lay in the phenomenon of the Catholic yellow-dog Democrat. “These people think the Depression started yesterday, and Franklin Roosevelt is in the White House,” an exasperated bishop from a battleground state exclaimed privately before the election. He meant practicing Catholics in his diocese who were determined to vote for Kerry.

The final reason concerned the yuppie values of marginal Catholics who found Kerry’s backing for abortion, life-destroying embryonic stem-cell research, same-sex unions, and the like more congenial than Bush’s modestly pro-life stands. Instead of being troubled by Kerry’s pledge to name supporters of Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court, these people apparently welcomed it.

Our Divided Bishops

Although divisions among bishops were generally less radical than divisions among other Catholics, in some ways they were more troubling. The most obvious question setting bishop against bishop was whether pro-choice Catholic politicians like Kerry should be given communion. Related to that was whether Catholics could vote for them in good conscience. Bishops disagreed about both things.

The debate took an especially disturbing turn in June at a closed-door meeting of the bishops in Denver. Then the bishops were kept in the dark about the full import of a communication sent by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, who chaired a bishops’ task force on politics and politicians. Acting in ignorance of Cardinal Ratzinger’s counsel to refuse communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians who persisted after being warned, the bishops settled for a compromise leaving it to each one to do as he thought best. This was geographical morality—something seriously wrong in St. Louis was seriously okay in Los Angeles.

After Denver, bishops’ statements multiplied. Generally speaking, they fell into two large groups: those who took a stern view of Catholic politicians who support abortion and those who managed to sound unconcerned. This static had its effect. No Catholic may have voted as he or she did just because of something a bishop said, but the drumbeat of bishops’ statements, even though they contradicted one another, combined with heavy coverage by the press to make Catholics aware of a crucial fact: Kerry had some kind of problem with the Church. This could only help Bush and hurt Kerry.

Statements by two bishops chosen more or less at random suggest how divided the hierarchy was.

Typical of those taking the soft line was Archbishop John R. Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco and for 30 years a prominent figure in the liberal wing of the American hierarchy. Speaking to the Knights of Malta, he described the political duty of Catholics this way: “To witness to the entire array of human issues where human dignity is in jeopardy, from the protection of the unborn and the rejection of euthanasia to the development of a humane economy and the work of peacemaking in the world.”

Typical of bishops taking a tough line was Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Virginia. In a statement read in parishes ten days before the election he said: “Intrinsically evil acts such as abortion or research on stem cells taken from human embryos cannot be placed on the same level as debates over war or capital punishment…. It is simply not possible to serve and promote the common good of our nation by voting for a candidate who, once in office, will do nothing to limit or restrict the deliberate destruction of innocent human life.”

As these comments suggest, underlying the question of communion for pro-choicers was another question: How important, really, is abortion to the Church?

No bishop thinks abortion is the only issue for the Church, and probably none thinks the Church shouldn’t be concerned about it at all. But some apparently have given up on abortion—or at least seriously downgraded it—as an item on the Church’s political agenda. In their view, defending unborn human life shouldn’t be allowed to trump other matters they’re concerned with—immigration, poverty, whatever. If politicians like John Kerry and Ted Kennedy support abortion, that’s too bad, but it’s no reason for not staying on good terms with them.

This attitude converges comfortably with the “seamless garment” approach of Faithful Citizenship, a laundry list of issues published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as a voter guide for the election of 2004. The bishops’ conference has published similar guides every four years since the 1970s.

Faithful Citizenship is a painful embarrassment to any thinking Catholic who ploughs through its heavy prose. Last year it was useful mainly to Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, a pro-choice Catholic Democrat who took it as the basis for claiming that, by the bishops’ own standards, Kerry was the Senate’s most faithful Catholic. The document’s built-in tilt to the left moved the Bush campaign to refuse to reply to a USCCB questionnaire based on it. The USCCB then privately advised the Kerry camp not to respond either, since in the circumstances its response couldn’t be used.

Bishop-watchers expected the mid-November USCCB meeting in Washington to be an occasion for serious efforts by the hierarchy to sort out what had happened and seek a new consensus. It didn’t happen. Instead, the discussion took place behind closed doors and, perhaps in tacit acknowledgment that consensus is now beyond the bishops’ reach, steered clear of the tough questions raised by recent events. Reporters were given copies of a report by Cardinal McCarrick which contained the remarkable claim that rumors of disagreement within episcopal ranks were the invention of unnamed groups and the press. All else failing, blame the media.

The events of 2004 suggest a different explanation. Last year a significant number of outspoken bishops wrote off the USCCB as a vehicle for pressing its views on sensitive issues in the political arena and in the life of the Church. The outcome, including the way Catholic voters swung, vindicated the no-nonsense wing of the hierarchy that includes men like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, and Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis. The big loser was the liberal wing represented by men like Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Quinn, and Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles.

Barring major changes in the USCCB, bishops of the Chaput-Myers-Burke variety are likely to continue speaking and acting on their own in the future, without letting a dysfunctional episcopal conference inhibit them. Catholics sympathetic to what they represent in both political and ecclesiastical terms must hope that, as the post-2004 situation evolves, a new structure and modus operandi for Catholic political action will take shape—and also that it will involve participation by the larger community of orthodox Catholics along with bishops. The need to have something of the sort up and running could be urgent as early as 2008, when the national ambitions of pro-choice Catholic Republicans like Rudolph Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger—to say nothing of any number of Kerry-type Catholic Democrats—may again test the Church.

The Big Picture

All that aside, the 2004 election was immensely important for its bearing upon deep-seated issues pertaining to Catholic identity and the future situation of the Catholic Church in the United States. Here some history helps.

From the start, the question at the heart of the American Catholic experience has been how to be altogether American and authentically Catholic at one and the same time. Anyone who imagines that has been definitively settled by now doesn’t understand the question—and surely doesn’t grasp the implications of last year’s events. To a considerable extent, the effort to work out an answer is the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. Discontinuities and conflicts in that complicated story usually have reflected the varying degrees of satisfaction and dissatisfaction felt by various groups inside and outside the Church with the provisional answers of any particular moment.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries churchmen like James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul worked hard to accomplish the rapid and complete integration of Catholic immigrants into American society. As they saw it, this would be in the best interests of the nation as well as the Church. Ireland, the most outspoken and sanguine of the Americanizers, said the United States would find “the surest safeguards of her own life and prosperity” in Catholic teaching.

Despite opposition within the Church from those who favored a more cautious, go-slow approach, the Americanizers won. By the middle years of the 20th century, the assimilation project was a smashing success on its own limited terms, and American Catholics were part of the cultural mainstream. But something strange and largely unforeseen happened, and as time passed a painful fact has become increasingly clear— something reflected today in the behavior of pro-choicers like John Kerry and the millions of Catholics who vote for them. Assimilation succeeded too well. The vision of a Church engaged in evangelizing the culture collapsed. Catholics didn’t evangelize the culture—the culture evangelized them.

But not all.

At a pre-election Capitol Hill lunch promoting George Marlin’s book The American Catholic Voter (St. Augustine’s Press), political writer Michael Barone remarked that elite media like the New York Times and the Washington Post take it for granted that practicing Catholics are “outside the American mainstream.” Such Catholics, who make up about one in three of the 70 million Catholics in the United States (the official number), now face the prospect of having to retreat into a cultural ghetto of their own if they are to maintain the integrity of the Faith. Then, says sociologist David Carlin, they will have about as much influence on American secular culture as Hasidic Jews and the Amish do now.

The election of 2004 showed that there’s another scenario: Observant Catholics will form new alliances across old denominational lines in order to wage the culture war. The election supplied evidence that this now is happening.

Shortly before November 2, two pieces were published that merit careful attention in this context. One was an op-ed column by Peter Beinart, editor of the New Republic, in the October 27 Washington Post titled ‘The End of the ‘Jewish Vote.’ Beinart argued that in terms of political behavior Orthodox Jews in America had moved away from conservative, reform, and non-observant Jews and in 2004, attracted by Bush’s pro-Israel/pro-Ariel Sharon policies, would—”like ‘traditionalist’ Christians”—vote for Bush while other Jews went for Kerry. Beinart found this unsurprising. “Increasingly,” he wrote, “America, or at least white America, has just two political cultures: religious and secular. And next week Jews…will finally choose sides.”

In fact, that seems to have happened. On November 2 Jews still voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, but Bush improved his showing among Jewish voters by a full 5 percentage points over 2000.

The other noteworthy piece appeared in the Weekly Standard and was the work of Joseph Bottum, a Catholic who is literary editor of that neoconservative journal.

Concluding that the traditional “Catholic vote” has disappeared, Bottum argued that its place was taken by “a horizontal unity that seems to cut across the vertical divisions” of religious America’s past, joining traditionalists of all denominations in a culturally conservative bloc. “A Presbyterian, say, with strongly orthodox views now typically feels more solidarity with an orthodox Lutheran or Catholic or even Jew than he does with the non-orthodox of his own denomination,” he wrote. November 2 bore that out.

So there things stand—for now. The older, monolithic religious voting blocs are gone. Long live the “horizontal unity” vote made up of Catholics who attend weekly Mass, evangelical and born-again Protestants, Orthodox Jews, and some other culturally conservative groups! In 2004 these voters determined the outcome of the election. We’ll hear more from them in 2008.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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