Almost any candidate running for president of the United States, for a state governorship, or for a U.S. Senate or House seat these days is clearly aware that he or she probably won’t win the election unless the better part of Catholics participating in that election choose to vote for him or her. In twenty-first century America, how Catholics vote generally determines the outcome of national and state election campaigns. The first presidential election of the century, the election of 2000, was an exception to this general rule, with Republican candidate George W. Bush barely scraping victory despite narrowly losing the Catholic vote. But in the more typical election of 2004, 52 percent of American Catholics cast their ballots for the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, resulting in his re-election as President of the United States. In 2008, on the other hand, Catholics opted for the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, by a 55 percent margin, putting him in the White House by a comfortable margin. The historic 2010 midterm elections revealed Catholic voters as a major driving force of the Tea Party landslide: 58 percent of them chose Republican candidates for governor, House and Senate seats. Finally, U.S. Catholic voters tipped the close presidential election of 2012 in favor of Barack Obama by a margin of 50 to 48 percent – the same margin as the rest of the electorate.
The significance of the Catholic vote in American politics is unquestionable. But what exactly is this thing called “the Catholic vote,” and how does it work? To find out, let’s take a closer look at the political, social, and religious characteristics of the Catholics of the United States today.
Catholics are a complex and unique group politically. Although they comprise a substantial chunk of the U.S. population (roughly one-fourth or about 70 million), unlike Jews or Evangelicals, they are not overwhelmingly committed to a single political party. Rather, they’re split about 40/40 between the Republican and Democratic parties, while the remaining 20 percent or so are “swing voters,” those who aren’t firmly committed to either party and whose choices in a given election are shaped by a variety of superficial factors. It is these swing voters in each national election, as well as in most state elections, who determine whether the majority of Catholics goes for one party or the other and thus which party wins high office. So savvy politicians spend a great deal of money and effort to try to win this narrow demographic of Catholic swing voters, who comprise no more than 5 percent of the total U.S. electorate.
Part of the reason why Catholics as a whole are not committed to a single party is that they are a motley bunch, hailing from a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds. They include Caucasians, Hispanics, Filipinos, other East Asians, African-Americans, rich and poor, business professionals and farm workers, urban and rural folk. Catholics are found in every milieu of American society; they inhabit every state and geographical region of the country (although they are spread more thinly in the South). These characteristics set Catholics apart from other religious groups, such as the Protestant majority (which is mostly white and Republican) and Jews (who are mainly Democrats and confined to the largest cities). Thus, it can be said that, given their political, ethnic and economic diversity, Catholics are generally representative of the nation as a whole.
The political characteristics of American Catholics are greatly influenced by how they believe and practice their faith. Less than one-fourth of them are faithful, practicing Catholics who allow their faith to shape their voting decisions and who follow the guidance of their bishops regarding both the negotiable and the non-negotiable issues at stake. For these good Catholics, the right to life of innocent unborn children, the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, the right of the Church to act in accord with its teachings and the rights of Americans to act in accord with their moral consciences and religious beliefs, and the right to life of the ill and elderly are of fundamental importance in choosing which candidate to vote for. While a candidate’s positions on other issues such as poverty, war, immigration, taxes, health care, or the economy are carefully considered as well, these negotiable issues are ultimately subservient to the non-negotiable issues of life, family, the moral law and human rights that form the very cornerstone of society. Since the Democratic Party has fervently embraced abortion and deliberately ostracized pro-life candidates, these devout Catholics usually end up voting Republican even if that runs against their preference because they have no other choice in good conscience. They are not necessarily loyal Republicans, and many of them are would-be Democrats. They are de facto Republicans whose voting habits are consistent and easily predictable.
However, more than 75 percent of American registered Catholics do not even fulfill their basic religious obligation of attending Mass every Sunday, and of these non-practicing Catholics, a substantial portion refuse to accept certain teachings of the Church. Included within this latter group is the 40 percent of all U.S. Catholics who believe that a woman has a right to an abortion under certain circumstances. Also included within this group is the lion’s share of the more than 50 percent of American Catholics who use artificial contraception within their marriages in violation of Church teaching. These staggering numbers indicate a serious crisis of faith in the American Catholic Church, and they betray grave problems in the Catholic vote. Many of these Catholics always vote Democratic regardless of their candidate’s position on life and marriage; some always vote Republican, even when the Republican candidate supports legalized abortion and same-sex “marriage”; and the remainder are swing voters who pick their party and candidate in each election with little or selective regard for Church teaching on the issues. Some nominal Catholics do agree with the Church that abortion is gravely immoral, but this does not stop them from voting for pro-abortion candidates in clear violation of Church teaching.
Within this overwhelming multitude of Catholics in name only, which includes some 60 million Americans, it is swing voters who determine the role that the Catholic vote plays in each national election as well as in most state elections. Catholic swing voters re-elected President Bush in 2004, elected President Obama in 2008, helped push the Tea Party to gubernatorial and Congressional victories in 2010, and reelected President Obama in 2012. President Obama’s election and re-election were due to Catholic swing voters allying with the substantial minority of Democratic pro-abortion Catholics.
Of course, it’s great when Catholic swing voters do the opposite, and join forces with faithful Catholics and staunch Republican Catholics to assure a victory for human rights and traditional values. In a triumphant press release following the historic 2010 midterm elections, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League announced that “Catholics voted 58-40 for the Republican candidates last night.” He noted that “[t]his was a dramatic 20-point swing from two years ago,” but then added, “What caused Catholics to bolt is not clear.” The reason for this dramatic swing was Catholic swing voters riding the wave of Tea Party enthusiasm that swept the country in reaction to President Obama’s unpopular and immoral healthcare reform law – which is now unfortunately in effect, thanks to those same swing voters having reverted to the Democratic Party two years later.
The fact of the matter is that these Catholic swingers, together with the vast assemblage of non-practicing Catholics in general, are essentially indistinguishable from the secular society and culture around them. They think and vote the way the people around them think and vote; their Catholic faith has little or nothing to do with it. Because they are not well-grounded in their faith, they allow the winds of fashion and popular opinion to blow them to and fro like rudderless sailboats. In 2008 the winds were blowing gently towards the Democrats, so that’s the way they headed. In 2010 the winds sharply shifted course towards Tea Party Republicans, so they caught the gusts and sailed along in that direction.
Catholics in name only control the power of the American Catholic vote by virtue of their sheer numerical monopoly. What’s even worse is that this situation is allowed to persist by another group we have not yet mentioned: millions of otherwise good practicing Catholics who don’t bother to register or go to the polls on Election Day. These Catholic non-voters frequently and adversely affect the outcome of elections by their failure to participate in the political process. If these otherwise good Catholics were mobilized to do their duty to God and country, they would add to the faithful Catholics who already vote and help to neutralize the deleterious effects of the Catholic swing voters, thus critically influencing the outcome of important elections. It’s a shame to see the Catholic vote split among pro-abortion Catholics, faithful Catholics and swing Catholics who ignore or selectively apply Church teaching on the issues, while other Catholics just sit by and watch. These divisions are preventing the Catholic vote from achieving its true potential as a great force for good in our country. Meanwhile, so-called “Catholic” politicians eagerly exploit the Catholic vote for their own political gain while promoting a woman’s “right” to abortion or attacking the Church’s right to practice its teachings in public life.
The good news, however, is that these grave problems with the American Catholic vote can be overcome. In fact, change for the better within the American Catholic Church is not only possible, it is gradually unfolding before our eyes. Most “cafeteria Catholics” are over the age of 60, while most faithful Catholics are 45 and under. Young Catholics in particular are fervently dedicated to the pro-life cause. This was nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the March for Life in Washington, D.C. in 2014. Of the more than 800,000 people who took part in this event, a majority were Catholic teenagers and younger adults born since Roe v. Wade. This army of young, pro-life Catholics – some of whom were elected to state governorships and U.S. House and Senate seats in 2010 and 2012 – continues to grow, while pro-abortion Catholics in the mold of Ted Kennedy are gradually declining and dying out. Younger Catholic priests are not afraid to speak from the pulpit the truth about the evils of abortion, artificial contraception, and gay “marriage,” and their numbers are slowly on the rise as well.
Imagine what the Catholic vote would be like if American Catholics were solidly united in the full belief and faithful practice of the religion they profess! Just imagine what would happen if all Catholic voters in the United States voted in accordance with Church teaching in every election. No pro-abortion candidate for president or governor would ever make it into public office; nor would most such candidates for U.S. Senate and House seats. Politicians would have a holy fear of the Catholic vote, knowing that to publicly take a pro-abortion or pro-gay “marriage” stand would cost them the support of their Catholic constituents. Furthermore, the already massive and growing pro-life, pro-marriage and religious liberty movements would be much stronger and even more effective if our elected representatives had four times as many Catholic constituents knocking on their doors and pressuring them to do away with legalized abortion, gay “marriage” and the HHS mandate. If every American Catholic citizen took seriously his or her grave moral obligation to form and vote their consciences in accord with Church teaching, we would have a different and much better country. And all this would happen if only Americans who currently profess to be Catholic took their faith seriously. The Catholic vote would take on even more formidable proportions if half of all American ex-Catholics – another 50 million people – were to return to the Church and begin voting as faithful Catholics. Imagine the beneficial consequences to our country of such a massive reversion to Catholicism!
As Catholics vote, so goes the nation. Good Catholics make good citizens. The sacraments (especially the Holy Eucharist and Confession), prayer (especially the Holy Rosary), and sound catechesis are the keys to revitalizing and renewing the Catholic Church in the United States – and in so doing, to unlock the hidden potential of the Catholic vote and make it truly a force to be reckoned with in future elections.