Casting Stones

Casting Stones

Counting the Catholics Who Care: a Reply to David Gibson

David Gibson attempts to stop the argument between Steven Waldman and me about Catholic voters. He says, in effect, there aren’t very many Catholic voters. Why? The number of Catholics who consider their faith important to their political decisions is lower than other religious groups, or so said the 2004 Pew survey he cites. Gibson gives as the reason for this disinterest, or shall we say lack of integration, that Catholics are “political orphans” because neither political party represents “Catholic teaching . . . to a consistent degree.”
The same survey, by the way, asks “whether it is important that the president have strong religious beliefs.” Catholics come in at 70%, two points higher than the entire sample. This is not the only example from the Pew survey manifesting a positive Catholic attitude toward the importance of religion in public life. Yet, that’s not quite what David is arguing, so I push on.
All serious analysis of the Catholic vote pays close attention to the differences between self-identified Catholics and active Catholics, those who report attending Mass at least once a week (the canonical requirement). Exit polling after elections always includes cross tabs on religious activism as a way of refining our understanding of the role religion plays in politics. That a candidate gets a strong majority of religiously active, say, Catholics, versus a majority of self-identified Catholics is evidence of a deeper appeal to Catholic voters. I’d bet some serious money that the number of religiously-active Catholics is significantly higher. If so, it would suggest David look for other data to support his argument. The percentage of the nation’s 68,000,000 Catholics who attend Mass regularly has been estimated as low as 20% to as high as 40%. My guess is it’s around 35%. That 35% cares a great deal about applying their faith to politics, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum.
In the Pew survey, cited by David, the Catholic answer to the question about “the importance of religion to political thinking” is broken into three groups — traditional or conservative Catholics, centrist Catholics, and modernist Catholics. Guess what? The conservative Catholics, precisely those Catholics who identify with the GOP, score 50%, well above the centrist 22%, and the modernist 12%. There are no cross-tabs in the Pew survey on the religious activism of those surveyed (or perhaps I missed them).
On the question of the bishop’s document Faithful Citizenship as a voter guide, I couldn’t agree with David more — it should not be treated that way and was never intended to be. It’s a topography of moral and social principles for Catholics to apply to their political action. David doesn’t mention the topography that distinguishes a Catholic’s prudential decisions based upon underlying principles from obligatory and non-negotiable decisions made about life issues (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cells, etc.).
If someone complains that the Church’s teaching on life provides a partisan advantage to the GOP, then the answer is that Democrats can remove the advantage by embracing the same teaching. Church teaching will not change and has not changed in the face of four decades of dissenting theologians and philosophers who tried to define the Catholic conscience without consideration of how it should be “informed.”
Catholics in the GOP may be step children, but not orphans.

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