Excerpted with permission from The New Republic
When he set out last year on his crusade for the presidency, John McCain aimed to change his party's views about a lot of things: campaign finance reform, foreign policy, even tax cuts. But religion wasn't one of them. In fact, the Arizona senator's two decades in Congress had been marked by an evident lack of interest in the intersection of faith and politics. All of which makes it particularly strange that it is at this intersection that his candidacy seems poised to leave its most lasting impression.
Until the McCain campaign began calling Michigan Catholics to tell them about George W. Bush's speech at Bob Jones University, the dominant story about religion's role in American politics went something like this. Once upon a time, denominational differences divided white American Christians. Episcopalians looked down on Baptists. Baptists despised Pentecostals. Everyone feared Catholics. But after World War II, Catholic upward mobility and Protestant ecumenism made such distinctions less and less important. And soon those distinctions were overwhelmed by another kind of religious divide: between the Americans whom the 1960s secularized and those whom secularization repelled. Ronald Reagan exploited this divide masterfully, cobbling together an alliance between churchgoing Southern evangelicals and churchgoing Northern Catholics. Catholics had traditionally voted Democratic, but in 1984 a majority of the most religious Catholics backed Reagan, as did 78% of all religiously active Christian conservatives. By the 1990s, the landscape, at least among white Christians, seemed clear: Republicans were the clerical party, and Democrats were the anti-clerical party; denomination didn't matter.
At least, that was conventional wisdom until a month ago, when McCain, in a series of strange coincidences, upended it. The first coincidence was the order of the GOP primaries. In the 1980s, Lee Atwater and Carroll Campbell had moved South Carolina's primary forward to protect against insurgents coming out of New Hampshire. Last year, Governor John Engler, hoping to get some of the anti-insurgent credit himself, did the same for Michigan. Quite by accident, one of the most Catholic states in the nation followed one of the most evangelical. The second coincidence was McCain's Manichean view of the world. Infuriated by the religious right's ruthless attacks on him in South Carolina, McCain, a man who agreed with conservative evangelical leaders on most issues, nonetheless decided they were his--and the GOP's--mortal enemies. And his campaign lashed back, telephoning Michigan Catholics to inform them of Bush's speech at anti-Catholic Bob Jones. The calls packed an added punch because of a third coincidence: Catholic resentment of the GOP leadership's recent decision to pass over a priest for the chaplaincy of the House. Individually, none of these factors would have mattered much. Together, they have exposed the supposed alliance between culturally conservative, devout Catholics and culturally conservative, devout evangelicals--an alliance at the heart of the GOP's claim to be America's majority party--as a myth.
Their inspiration, of course, was Reagan. Their problem was that while Reagan did indeed bring Catholics and evangelicals together, it was not, as Reed and Robertson wanted to believe, in opposition to secularization. The Reagan coalition was a coalition against liberalism: against military weakness abroad, against high taxes, against welfare and affirmative action. Moral issues per se--abortion, school prayer, gay rights--were a small part of it. Yet in the Clintonized political environment of the 1990s, with the Cold War over and the Democratic Party's left wing defanged, those moral issues were the only foundations on which an evangelical-Catholic alliance could rest.
They weren't enough. A 1996 study by University of Notre Dame Professor David Leege revealed that half of all Catholics who regularly attend Mass consider themselves Democrats. In fact, less observant Catholics were the ones more likely to vote for the GOP. The belief that religious Catholics were gravitating en masse toward the Republican Party because of its stance on abortion or other moral issues was, in Leege's view, "historically myopic and sociologically mistaken."