Senator John F. Kennedy walked into the grand ballroom of Houston’s Rice Hotel with one goal: to put to rest the notion that a Roman Catholic should not be elected president of the United States. It was September 1960, and many Americans were wary of electing a Catholic. Most non-Catholics viewed the church with suspicion or outright disdain and feared that a Catholic president would take his cues from Rome rather than Peoria.
Kennedy had spent much of the previous spring combating the “religion thing,” as he called it in an unguarded moment during the West Virginia primary. Now, in this speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, he fired his fiercest salvo yet: “I do not speak for my church on public matters and my church does not speak for me,” he said. “I believe in an America...where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.”
In 2004, it would seem that Kennedy’s vision has been realized. There is clearly no longer any meaningful anti-Catholic vote. Senator John F. Kerry—the new J.F.K. from Massachusetts and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee—is a Catholic, and the only ones who seem to mind are some Catholics who feel he may not be Catholic enough. Meanwhile, a growing number of commentators are suggesting that the “Catholic voter” is more elusive, less predictable and more independent than ever before—so much so that speaking of a Catholic vote at all may, like Kennedy’s Houston speech, belong to history.
A Catholic Vote?
Is there a Catholic vote in the United States? It depends on what you mean. Composing 20 percent to 30 percent of the national vote, the Catholic vote would appear to be sizable and influential. In fact, no candidate in modern times, except for George W. Bush, has won the White House without winning the Catholic vote or, to put it more accurately according to some observers, the votes of Catholics. “There are Catholics who vote, but there’s really not a Catholic vote per se,” says John Zogby, president of Zogby International, a national polling firm that has surveyed American Catholics. “When all is said and done, Catholics go to the polls as something else: veterans, union members, residents of the northeast, young, old. Being Catholic is not the major identifier,” argues Zogby.
This differs from the behavior of evangelical Protestants. In a recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, almost 70 percent of self-identified evangelicals said that their religious beliefs occasionally or frequently guide their voting decisions, compared with just 32 percent of Catholics. This suggests that most Catholics vote the way they do for reasons other than their religious beliefs, which makes capturing the Catholic vote more difficult. Candidates hoping to win the votes of evangelical Protestants presumably need to run as pro-life, pro-family Republicans. But there is no guarantee that this will work with Catholics. “Catholics appear to be pro-life,” Zogby told an audience at The Catholic University of America in February, “but they do not necessarily vote that way.”
In fact, survey data on a range of social issues reveal that Catholics may be more liberal than their church’s hierarchy. They are certainly more liberal than a good number of their Protestant counterparts. “Catholics have always been more supportive of social legislation,” says the Rev. Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest and sociologist. When polled about same-sex relationships, for instance, “less than half of Catholics say that homosexual sex is always wrong,” a position at odds with traditional Catholic teaching, says Greeley. This suggests that Catholics may be more accepting of such relationships than other religious groups. “Catholics are also more likely to oppose the Iraq war, as they were more likely to oppose the Vietnam war,” Greeley says. They were also “more likely to support Clinton even when he was under assault.” At the same time, however, Catholic voters are more likely to support some programs, like school vouchers, that are more traditionally identified with conservatives. As a result, “Catholics may be the most maddening electoral group in American politics,” the Republican pollster Steve Wagner told E. J. Dionne in American Catholics and Civic Engagement: A Distinctive Voice, a collection of essays edited by Margaret O’Brien Steinfels [reviewed in this issue]. Catholics, Wagner says, are the “demographic bloc that drives pollsters, pundits and politicians to distraction.”
Pollsters and politicians may not be the only ones. The disconnect between the religious beliefs of Catholics and their behavior in the voting booth could pose a problem for U.S. bishops, who have made civic engagement a top pastoral priority. “Faithful citizenship calls Catholics to see civic and political responsibilities through the eyes of faith and to bring our moral convictions to public life,” the bishops wrote in their 2003 document Faithful Citizenship. To be sure, some U.S. Catholics will go into the voting booth thinking of Catholic teaching, with its liberal economic agenda and conservative social agenda, as their guide. According to Zogby, such Catholics will be “predominantly among that portion that attend Mass weekly, [a group that is] skewed older, not younger. But that won’t necessarily mean any change [from recent elections] in voting patterns or preference for that group.” In a sense, says Zogby, Faithful Citizenship is “what we might characterize as preaching to the choir.”
Even if there is not a Catholic vote in the sense that there is an evangelical Protestant vote, it is impossible to divorce completely a Catholic’s religious beliefs from his or her actions, says Greeley. He points out that most Catholic voters vote Democratic in presidential elections, and he argues that this is a religious choice “in the sense of the Catholic communal emphasis. There is this propensity for Catholics to vote Democratic, partly because the Catholic worldview is more inclined to be concerned about social matters.” Others would disagree. “The differences among us are rooted in ideas and impulses only marginally connected to the fact that we are Catholic,” E. J. Dionne writes in American Catholics and Civic Engagement. “For this reason, one cannot talk about a Catholic vote. One can talk, at most, about a Catholic tendency.”
The Catholic Voter
The same unpredictable tendency among the Catholic electorate that frustrates politicians also motivates them to go after Catholic voters. Unpredictable voters are swing voters, viewed as “in play” for either party, and swing voters decide elections, as shown especially in recent presidential contests. A small number of swing voters in just a few states decided the 2000 contest and may do so again in 2004. And in four of the so-called 2004 “swing states”—West Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin—Catholics make up 30 percent or more of the population.
What will the presidential candidates have to do to win these votes? First, they will have to consider the facts:
• For now at least, Catholic voters still tend toward the Democratic Party. Catholics are “always by 10 or 15 percentage points more likely to vote Democratic than white Protestants,” says Greeley. (It is important to account for blacks apart from these comparisons, because they are overwhelmingly Protestant and Democratic.) Some challenge Greeley’s assertion by pointing out that a Catholic majority voted twice for Ronald Reagan. “It may well be that the whole population switches Republican, like in the Reagan years,” Greeley says. “But Catholics don’t switch disproportionately.” Even when a majority of Catholics voted Republican in presidential elections, the fact remains that they were still “more likely to support Democratic candidates than white Protestants.”
While experts agree that the votes of Catholics lean Democratic in presidential elections, most would disagree with Greeley that it has much to do with their religion. “It’s tied very much to ethnic heritage,” says Nelson Polsby, a professor of political science at the University of California Berkeley. For much of the 20th century, Polsby argues, the Catholic population was ethnic and working class. The Democratic New Deal appealed to immigrant working-class Catholics of the 20th century. While there are certainly some Catholics who vote Democratic because of their religious beliefs (the Democratic party platform is often perceived to be more in line with church teachings on economics and just war theory), the historical relationship between the underclass and the Democratic party largely accounts for the allegiance of Catholic voters, according to experts.
• Republicans may be closing in. Given the tendency of Catholic voters to vote Democratic, some observers say that the majority of the Catholic vote is not in play in 2004. Zogby disagrees. “In the 1990’s Bill Clinton won the Catholic vote by double digits,” he says, “but Al Gore won the Catholic vote in 2000 by only four points. And George W. Bush polls respectably among Catholics,” Zogby says, “better than Republicans ever did in the 1990’s.”
There is also an important historical trend, which continues, that could benefit Republicans, according to John Kenneth White, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. Since the early 1960’s Catholics have become more suburban and more affluent. In fact “the last meeting that John Kennedy had in the White House was about how to deal with suburban voters” in the 1964 election, according to White. As Catholics continue to move from the cities to the suburbs and from blue-collar union jobs to white-collar nonunion jobs, it should not surprise anyone if they vote Republican. “It’s got to do with class,” says Polsby. “Lots of Catholics do what Protestants do. When they make more money, they are more likely to be Republican.”
• Not all Catholics are the same. About three out of four Catholic voters are white, according to Zogby, about 20 percent are Hispanic, 2 percent are African-American, and a smaller number are Asian. That may be true, but according to Polsby, “you’ve got to disaggregate. ‘Catholic’ covers a lot of folks. For example, most Cuban Americans are Catholic and most other Hispanic Americans are Catholic, but they vote very differently.” Cuban Americans tend to vote Republican while the larger Hispanic population tends Democratic. A recent poll by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that 40 percent of Catholics polled who intend to vote in this year’s presidential election identify themselves as Democrats, but Zogby estimates that 80 percent or more of Hispanic Catholics do so. That is a big difference. But in order for it to matter, Hispanics will have to vote in larger numbers than they have done in recent elections. In 2000 and 2002, according to Greeley, Hispanic Catholics had the lowest turnout rates of any of the religious groups.
• Religious practice makes a difference. In the 2000 presidential election, Catholics who attended Mass regularly were much more likely to vote for Bush than those who attended infrequently or not at all. And according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, “among white Catholics who attend Mass regularly, an 18-point Democratic advantage in the late 1980’s (42 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican) has turned into a dead heat today (30 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican).”
Given this diversity, it is clear that in order to win a majority of Catholic votes, candidates will have to appeal to more than the general religious sensibilities of Catholics. They will have to look elsewhere to find the key to the hearts of Catholic voters.
The Catholic Candidate
John Kennedy’s throat was sore as his campaign plane approached Houston that night in 1960. In order to save his voice for his upcoming speech to Protestant ministers, Kennedy was not talking, preferring to scribble notes to his aides. He slipped a note about the speech to John Cogley, an aide and fellow Catholic. “It is rather hard for a Harvard man to answer questions about theology,” Kennedy scrawled, “I am sure my answers will cause a good deal of heartburn at Fordham and B.C.” Kennedy was anticipating that his speech would not be popular in some Catholic circles, particularly among some of the nation’s bishops. Kennedy’s critics included “Catholics who were certain he would stifle his faith,” according to Ted Sorensen in Kennedy, his biography of the president.
In 2004, for only the third time in American history, a major political party will nominate a Roman Catholic for president. While John Kerry faces no obvious anti-Catholic bias, as Kennedy did in 1960, he does face the same concern among some Catholics that he will ignore important Catholic teachings in his public life. The Rev. Bill Carmody, a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Denver, spoke for some Catholics when he led the Colorado House of Representatives in prayer in early April with these words: “May [the members of this House] be the antithesis of John Kennedy, may they be men and women of God, and may their faith influence and guide every vote they take.”
Carmody’s view, while not shared by the majority of Catholic voters, may be shared by some in the Catholic hierarchy. Faithful Citizenship encourages Catholics “to act on our faith in political life.” As a result, some in the Catholic hierarchy would deny Communion to Kerry and other politicians whose public position on abortion contradicts church teaching. If that happens, says Greeley, there will be a backlash, and the bishops would be “contributing to a possible Kerry victory.” But the bishops may realize that their credibility has been ravaged by the sexual abuse crisis, Greeley says, and refrain from making an issue of Kerry’s Catholicism. “Only a bishop who doesn’t realize how morally bankrupt the hierarchy is because of the sex abuse scandal would try to influence the election by, in effect, excommunicating a Catholic candidate,” he said.
What will Catholic voters do in 2004? How will they respond to the public debate over Kerry’s Catholicism? In 1960, we know, Catholics voted overwhelmingly for John Kennedy. Though Kennedy decried “bloc voting of any kind” in his Houston speech, if Catholics had not voted for him as a bloc he would surely have lost the election. Recent public opinion polls, however, do not show a similar advantage for Kerry. The poll conducted on April 12 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 46 percent of Catholics said they would vote for Kerry this November, compared with 41 percent who said they would vote for Bush. Since the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, the outcome of the presidential vote by American Catholics is anything but certain. Catholic News Service reports that Kerry’s “strongest support” is, predictably, among Catholic Democrats (81 percent would vote for Kerry) and Hispanics born in the United States (56 percent supported Kerry), and that Kerry’s weakest support is among the most devout. “Forty-five percent of weekly Mass-goers said they would vote for Bush, compared to 41 percent who said they would vote for Kerry,” reported CNS.
Overall, the CARA poll and a Zogby International poll taken during the same week show that Catholics are about as evenly divided between Bush and Kerry as is the rest of the country.
An Uncertain Future
“As we say in my part of Texas, he ate ’em raw,” U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn said of John Kennedy’s Houston speech. Many agreed. Sorensen wrote that the speech “was widely and enthusiastically received.” While anti-Catholic whispers continued to follow Kennedy, the Houston speech effectively relieved the fears of most Americans. Kennedy had dispelled the notion that a Catholic should not be elected president.
But to do so, Kennedy had to sever the ties between his religious beliefs and his political actions, at least in public. “I believe in an America where the separation between church and state is absolute,” he said. The recent CARA poll indicates that most Americans today agree. While “most people —about 67 percent—say religious beliefs play a role in helping them decide what to do in life, fewer—about 38 percent—say their faith plays a frequent or occasional role in the voting booth” (CNS). According to Polsby, “the idea that you vote according to your faith implies that your faith tells you how to vote, that is, that God has a party line. I don’t think he does.”
Most Catholics don’t think so either. And in that sense, there is no Catholic vote. But for the first time in 44 years, there will be a Catholic nominee for president. Add to that a diverse and still changing Catholic population, as well as a powerful U.S. hierarchy that wants Catholics to vote, but not necessarily for a Catholic candidate who may not be Catholic enough, and it is anyone’s guess what will happen in November.
Catholic Voting: A Short History
Have Catholics always leaned toward the Democratic Party? “Yes,” says John Kenneth White, professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. In the period from 1890 to 1930, the United States experienced a greater influx of immigrants than in the entire period before 1890; and millions of the newcomers were Catholics. The ruling class was WASP and Republican—seemingly unsympathetic to the concerns of the new underclass. “By and large the Democrats were seen as more welcoming,” says White. “This was confirmed in 1923, when the Republican Congress and a Republican president voted to shut off immigration.”
In 1928, Governor Al Smith of New York, a Catholic, won the Democratic nomination for president. Smith lost the race in the most anti-Catholic campaign in American history, but not before claiming almost all Catholics for the Democratic Party. In the 1930’s, “Catholics were very much a part of the Democratic, Roosevelt coalition,” says White. “The New Deal was not a Catholic program, but it was targeted to the have-nots, and Catholics were largely have-nots.”
Thanks to the New Deal and a postwar boom, Catholics gradually became haves; and in the 1950’s they drifted away from the Democratic Party and supported Dwight Eisenhower. A Catholic again ran for the presidency in 1960, and over 70 percent of Catholics supported Kennedy. “Kennedy was not Al Smith,” says White. “He was not the ethnic Catholic candidate. He was very much of the managerial era.” Kennedy’s win was the high-water mark of Catholic influence in American politics.
Since 1960, says White, while Catholics have continued to be more likely than other religious groups to support Democratic candidates, there has been a movement of Catholics away from the Democratic Party. Why? “In one sense, the Democratic Party lost Catholics because the greatest danger for a party is not when they fail but when they succeed. The New Deal was a great success,” White says. In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, Catholics had become part of the haves. They now relate to the government not as recipients of its services but as its overseers. “They’ve got their green eyeshades on and they’re looking at their tax bills,” says White.
Also, over the course of the 20th century, White contends, “the terms of conflict changed” in American society. Civil conflicts “revolved less around religious questions, like religious discrimination or could a Catholic become president,” and became “a new kind of values conflict that has its roots in the women’s and civil rights revolutions of the 1960’s and 1970’s.” According to White, “the fault lines in these debates now transcend religious distinctions.”