In the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, a combination of media experts and religious leaders have argued that “religion” and “moral values” have taken on a new importance in American political life. The evangelicals are claiming control of the Republican Party because, as they say, they won the election for George W. Bush. Catholic pro-life groups argue that they taught John F. Kerry and all other pro-choice Democrats a stern lesson in what Catholic power can accomplish. Both groups eagerly expect that the re-elected president will take strong measures to recriminalize abortion. They shouldn’t hold their breath.
Many of the commentariat are announcing that religion dominates or will soon come to dominate American political life. Disappointed secularist Democrats ridicule the “red states” as “Jesusland.” We are told that, for weal or woe, “moral values” and “family values” are red hot political issues.
An occasional sane voice like that of the senior American political scientist James Quinn Wilson has argued—in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, no less—that none of these hysterical assertions can be proved by the election returns and that the announcement by The New York Times that moral values were crucial to the outcome of the election went far beyond the data. Jim Wilson, one of my teachers longer ago than either of us would like to remember, is patently right.
Americans have never unseated a president in time of war. There was little reason to expect that they would do so this time in the absence of a charismatic Democratic candidate, the like of which was not available (since the only one such cannot run again). The majority of Americans (by 1 percentage point) chose not to change horses in the middle of the stream. Those for whom moral values are important have voted for Republican candidates in every previous presidential election. Most Americans, as my colleague Michael Hout and I have demonstrated with data from the ongoing General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, are neither consistently pro-life nor consistently pro-choice. Rather, they are ideologically inconsistent, approving legalized abortion when there is a serious threat to the mother’s health and rejecting it when it is merely abortion on demand. This inconsistency exists among both evangelicals and Catholics. Nor is there any evidence that there have been changes in this inconsistency across the last 30 years. That fact is troubling to some Catholic laypeople, members of the clergy and hierarchs. Nonetheless, it serves no useful purpose to pretend it is not true.
One cannot object to the leaders of pro-life groups claiming more political clout. That’s their job. But one can and should object to secularist commentators, delighted to be frightened by new enemies, conceding that clout in the face of obvious evidence. Abortion and, more recently, homosexuality have been divisive issues in many American political contests, but they have not been decisive.
To be fair to the white evangelicals (or fundamentalists, or whatever they want to call themselves), by no means are all of them part of the Republican political base. Indeed, there is strong evidence that the poorer white evangelicals are part of the Democratic vote.
Where does all of this leave the “Catholic vote”?
I predicted recently that, on the basis of the last three presidential elections, Catholics would be perhaps 10 to 12 percentage points more likely than white Protestants to vote for the Democratic candidate. The New York Times exit poll reported that the difference was 15 percentage points. Plus ça change.... Another survey shows them 20 points ahead of white Protestants. If Catholics had not been more likely to vote for Kerry than white Protestants, the president would have piled up a majority of 56 percent.
The Republican base is not primarily the evangelicals, but white Protestants, just as it always has been. Only a third of them voted for Kerry, perhaps less.
As to the confusion over the Hispanic vote, Hispanics are of course Democratic and likely to remain so. But not enough of them vote yet to be major players in American politics. More’s the pity.
The archbishops, bishops, priests and laypeople who enthusiastically interjected themselves into the election in the name of pro-life accomplished little by their enthusiasm save for confirming the media’s anti-Catholic prejudices and scandalizing their own people by their apparent efforts to make the church a wing of the Republican party. I say this not, as myriad hate-mail writers will insist, because I do not care about the murder of millions of babies. I say it because I consider data inviolate in the face of ideological prejudice.