The panel was notable for several reasons. First, it was the only discussion of the Catholic vote in the midst of a conference addressed by all the GOP presidential hopefuls with the exception of Newt Gingrich. Second, the discussion was extremely well-attended by conference attendees who were predominately Evangelical.
Matt Smith, head of Catholic coalitions in President George W. Bush’s administration, framed the hour-long discussion around the importance of Catholics as a swing voting group. Their loyalty to socially conservative presidential candidates has been demonstrated again and again since Ronald Reagan’s surprise victory over the first evangelical president Jimmy Carter in 1980.
I had the experience of having led the Bush/Cheney campaign’s Catholic outreach in 2000 and 2004 and advising the McCain campaign in 2008. And, I took a few minutes to describe the temper of Catholic voters heading into the 2012 election. “Many Catholics are frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of intensity in Catholic leaders about the issue of abortion and same-sex marriage,” adding, “Some faithful Catholics become confused about the priority they give to life and marriage when they see so much energy being spent on other issues like immigration and universal health care.”
This frustration, I explained, has three consequences among the Mass-attending Catholics most likely to vote in the 2012 election. “Many struggle with what obedience means when they feel a lack of leadership on the settled issues of life and marriage.” As a result, and this can be seen since the late 60s with the formation of the Moral Majority, Catholics seek refuge in political groups that have no Catholic affiliation.
I told the Faith & Freedom Coalition that when Catholics take their political participation out of the Catholic community a vacuum is created allowing a truncated view of social justice to emerge, “one that has distanced itself from the protection of the most vulnerable among us, the unborn.”
Those asking questions or making comments at the session were quick to agree with my description of the growing frustration among many Catholic voters and asked what should be done. In response, Matt Smith reminded all those present that it’s the responsibility of Catholic laypersons to engage the political process, especially the work needing to be done in registering Catholic voters, educating them, and mounting get-out-the-vote efforts.
It should be added that Ralph Reed’s new organization — the Faith & Freedom Coalition — is growing very quickly both in size and influence. Compared to the conference last year, the 2011 event was at least ten times the size and displayed a level of energy comparable with a Tea Party rally. I have no doubt that the 2012 conference will need to be held at a much, much larger venue and will end up being “standing-room only.” No kidding!