The vanishing Catholic vote

Russell Shaw

In this exceedingly strange political year, what has become of the Catholic vote?

There was a time not so long ago when the voting behavior of American Catholics was a matter of intense interest to the secular media. Not today. Up to now journalists have virtually ignored the Catholic vote, concentrating instead on Protestant evangelicals and their relations with Donald Trump.

Journalists’ indifference reflects a perception that the Catholic vote no longer matters much.

The reason can be summed up in a stark and undeniable fact. Exit polls back to 2004 show a majority of Catholic voters not only supporting the winner of each presidential election but doing so by nearly the same margin as the electorate as a whole. Thus 52 percent of Catholics went for Bush in 2004 compared with 51 percent of all voters; 53 percent for Obama in 2008 (54 percent overall) and 50 percent in 2012 (an identical 50 percent overall).

“Some people will tell you the Catholic vote has become a national bellwether. But you could just as easily say that the Catholic vote is, at least when it comes to electing a president, meaningless,” comments Stephen White in his new book “Red, White, Blue, and Catholic.”

Two underlying causes for this state of affairs stand out: assimilation and clericalism.

Assimilation — the process by which people are absorbed into the surrounding culture — has been a central part of the American Catholic story for well over two centuries. Necessary and beneficial for a long time, assimilation has become increasingly problematic as the secular culture has grown increasingly hostile to religious values and beliefs. Now it is central to the religious identity crisis of American Catholicism — and of the decline of the Catholic vote.

As for clericalism, in this particular context it’s an umbrella term for the assumption held by many American Catholics — including large numbers of the laity — that responsibility for representing the church’s vision of a just society rests with the clerical hierarchy and not with them.

This is a tacit rejection of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that the “special vocation” of lay people is “to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances” — notably the political order — “where it is only through them that she can become salt of the earth” (Constitution on the Church, 33).

As a result of this kind of thinking, the body of Catholic voters in America approach the November elections, now shaping up as the most significant in many years, unlikely to play any distinctive role in shaping the outcome. Rather, if the pattern holds, they will vote according to the voting patterns of their socio-economic peers.

Noting this situation as it existed several years ago, columnist Michael Gerson remarked that with the apparent passing of the Catholic vote today, “most Catholics vote almost exactly like their suburban neighbors.”

Gerson added: “One would hope that an ancient, distinctive faith would leave some distinctive mark.” Indeed, but don’t count on it now.

Russell Shaw, author of “American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America,” was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1969-87.