Religion and the 2004 Election

A Special Supplement to Religion in the News
Fall 2003


                                    by David Yamane

Quick Links:
Table of Contents

Special Section: Introduction

The New Religion Gap

Hispanic Catholics

Non-Hispanic Catholics

Evangelicals Inside the Beltway

Evangelicals Outside the Beltway

Mainline Protestants

African American Protestants


Arab Americans: Muslims and Others























































Hit Counter



A professor from the University of Wisconsin once told me, “If you want a random sample of American public opinion, just go talk to Catholics.”

A quarter of the American population, Catholics are bound to be incredibly diverse. The best description of the Catholic Church in America is “here comes everyone.”

What is the political consequence of this diversity? If Catholics are just a representative subset of the American population as a whole, there should be no particular political consequences of identifying oneself as Catholic.

 In fact, David Leege, a Notre Dame colleague, claims that Catholics don’t vote any differently from other people of the same racial, ethnic, class, or gender background. But if you want that line, he’ll be happy to give it to you.

In terms of the Catholic Church as an institution, both by law and by its own self-understanding, the church has no proper role to play in electoral politics. A 501c3 tax-exemption places strict limits on what the church can do in funding political campaigns and endorsing candidates for elected office, and this isn’t a problem because the church itself believes that the church is called to be, in the words of its political responsibility statement, “political but not partisan.”

In their 2000 Statement on Faithful Citizenship, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops reiterated this understanding: “We do not seek the formation of a religious voting bloc, nor do we wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates.”

Thus, we have, on the one hand, a Catholic population that may be indistinct from the rest of the American population in terms of voting and, on the other hand, a church organization that is unwilling and unable to be directly involved in electoral politics.

I begin by disagreeing with David Leege’s assessment of Catholics and individual voters.

From 1988 through the 2000 election, I came to feel what I think many Catholics feel when they approach voting in a presidential election: political homelessness. Neither party’s political tent is big enough to encompass all the issues that matter to Catholics, and so we make prudential and contingent judgments about whom to vote for, depending on the time and place and at what level the voting takes place.

There is some evidence for the fact that Catholics don’t feel very much at home in either political family. The recent book by Peter Steinfels, called A People Adrift, reports on surveys that ask people not just what party they favor, but also how strongly they favor that party. They found that about 19 percent of Catholics consider themselves strong Democrats and 15 percent consider themselves strong Republicans. The other two-thirds of the Catholic population sits in the middle, uneasy in one or the other party.

 When I hear people talk about the Catholic strategy of Bush, I can’t help but think that it has a negative connotation, that the Bush administration is pursuing support of Catholics in an insincere or manipulative way. To me, the administration is simply highlighting the affinities between certain positions it favors and certain Catholic teachings.

It’s much smarter than what sometimes appears to be the willful alienation of Catholics by the Democratic Party. We see this in the Democrat Catholic strategy on abortion, from the exclusion of Governor Casey from the 1992 convention to the inclusion of a link to Catholics for a Free Choice on the Democratic National Committee Website. Until recently, the only link on the DNC Website to a Catholic group was Catholics for a Free Choice.

We also see it on social justice issues. The moderation of the Democratic Party seems mostly to mean adopting those aspects of the Republican Party platform that are most objectionable from the perspective of Catholic teaching. I think back to Bill Clinton’s betrayal on welfare and on the death penalty.

 About the church as an organization and how it might be politically involved in the coming year, I think the two big story lines have to do with same-sex marriage and threats to the church’s institutional autonomy.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is now considering a case—Goodridge v. Department of Public Health—that many people believe will result in a redefinition of legal marriage in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to include same-sex unions. The bishops of Massachusetts are assuming that the court will rule in such a way as to legalize these unions. The bishops are supporting a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Obviously, this issue isn’t restricted to Massachusetts, and, especially in light of developments in Canada, this is going to be an issue that the bishops have to address in the coming election cycle.

I’m particularly interested to see how they address it in the 2004 statements the bishops will release on political responsibility. In their 2000 statement, they wrote: “Marriage as God intended it provides the basic foundation for family life and needs to be protected in the face of the many pressures working to undermine it.”

When they talk about the pressures threatening to undermine the family, they mention taxes, the workplace, and divorce and welfare policies. They argue that these things must be designed to help families stay together and to reward responsibility and sacrifice for children. There is no explicit mention of same-sex marriage. In 2004, they’re not going to be able to avoid the issue.

The question is, how do the bishops articulate their opposition to same-sex marriage without demonizing homosexuals? The church teaches the inherent dignity of the human person and nondiscrimination against homosexual persons. The assertion that, on the one hand, you can’t discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation but, on the other hand, gays don’t have any right to marry is very difficult to sell at this particular moment in history and in this particular culture. So it will be interesting to see how the bishops attempt to negotiate a position that obviously even faithful Catholics have a hard time dealing with.

The headline on page 1 of the August 1 Chicago Sun-Times, “Pope launches global campaign against gays,” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that that message is going to be conveyed in a way that gets out of the dual nature of the argument.

The second issue facing the church leadership concerns the question of institutional autonomy.

The most immediate threat comes from efforts, led by the Planned Parenthood Federation, to require all employers to pay for contraceptive coverage in their health care plans.

Currently, 21 states have “contraceptive equity” clauses. Of those, 10 have a “religious exception.” In fact, the religious exceptions are often drawn so narrowly that they exclude Catholic institutions that provide health care, education, and social services. They would include churches, but that’s about it.

The political question is, how does the church protect its institutional autonomy under these conditions? A lot of church leaders say they’re feeling drawn toward involvement in electoral politics as a result of issues like this.

School vouchers are also a very important issue. One of the challenges that the state conferences have as lobbying organizations is that they represent the bishops, but they often reference the Catholic population of the state as a reason that legislators should support the positions they’re advocating, even though they often can’t deliver those votes. But vouchers are one area where you have a built-in group of individual voters with a vested interest in the outcome. I think some of the most advanced grassroots organizing that’s coordinated by the Catholic conferences is in the area of vouchers.

Partial birth abortions also mobilized a lot of people. This is an area where the Democratic Party could have made a lot of inroads. With some moderation on this particularly visceral issue, the party could have opened its tent a little bit more widely to some of those people who are in that very small margin in supporting the Republican Party, although unhappily.

 How do journalists get to this story? You may know that state-level Conferences of Catholic Bishops exist in 33 states and the District of Columbia, but they often operate under the radar of media attention and scholarly attention. But if you want to understand what’s going on in terms of the Church’s political activity in your state, you would do very well to contact the staff of the Catholic Conference.