The complex Catholic vote

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Much has been made over the failed prognostications by pundits and pollsters this past election at the presidential level. One particularly fascinating epic “miss” was predicting how the “Catholic Bloc” would vote. The results of the 2016 election reveal, if anything, how difficult it is to measure the depths of voter sentiment — especially religious fervor — in a complex, continental country of 320 million Americans.

 On August 30, a Washington Post story, “Donald Trump Has a Massive Catholic Problem,” showed that Democrat Hillary Clinton was leading among Catholic voters by a margin of 27 percentage points (61 percent to 34 percent) over Republican Trump.

“Trump is basically adding 5 to 7 percentage points to Clinton’s overall margin,” wrote the Post. The paper cited Trump’s tussle with Pope Francis this past February over the border wall with Mexico as a possible reason (“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the pontiff said).

But two months later, in a vacillation as wide as St Peter’s Basilica, an IBD/TIPP poll had Trump ahead of Clinton among Catholics by 13 percentage points — 50 percent to 37 percent.

 In his October 5 letter to the Denver Catholic, The Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Denver, raised a conundrum for Catholics: I have voted in every presidential election since 1972 and I have never experienced an election like this year’s. So, what should Catholics do when we vote in November?”

Like many Americans (80 percent of likely voters nationwide were embarrassed by the presidential race according to a Colby College-Boston Globe poll commissioned just prior to the election), Archbishop Aquila shared an “aversion for both candidates.” As might be expected, he believed that the Faithful needed “to reflect on the platforms of both parties, with an emphasis on the human life issues.”

Purported Catholic support of Clinton and her stance on abortion (pro-choice) seemed to defy Archbishop Aquila’s call for Catholics to focus on “human life issues.” Further still, with agonizing irony, Clinton (as discovered in the WikiLeaks email hacks) appeared to be mocking Catholics during the campaign — what the Washington Times just last month called an “assault on Catholics.” Notably, Trump throughout the campaign professed his pro-life stance.

But according to The New York Times’ review of exit polling, Trump actually won the Catholic Vote by seven percentage points (52 percent to 45 percent). This led a day after the election to conclude, “rumors of the demise of religion as a voting issue have been greatly exaggerated.” But this conclusion may be overly simplistic even as Catholics represent 20 percent of the electorate.

Catholics have played a pivotal role in voting and affecting outcomes since the earliest days of the republic. In its captivating “History of the Catholic Vote,” Our Sunday Visitor traces the roots of its political leverage from Catholic Federalists in the 1700s to the John F. Kennedy’s ascendency to the presidency in 1960 (“the time had come when ‘a man can say his beads in the White House’”) through the modern era.  

Today, national media still cite the influence of the so-called “swing vote” of the Catholic Bloc” which was thought to vote as a monolithic group. However, the reality now is that, as a demographic group, it is more disparate and no longer reliably a single-issue bloc of voters. Commentator E.J. Dionne, who is Catholic, has steadfastly said: “there is no Catholic vote and it is important.” As National Catholic Reporter sees it, “they are important because they have voted for the winner of the popular vote in almost every presidential election since Roosevelt.”

Since 1960 — when Kennedy won 78 percent of the Catholic vote — Catholics have voted for the presidential winner in every election except in 1976 (Carter-Ford), 1988 (Dukakis-Bush), 2000 (Gore-Bush) and 2004 (Kerry-Bush). In 2012, Mitt Romney lost the Catholic vote by two percentage points (50 percent to 48 percent).

Nevertheless, Catholics look at the complexities of modern day politics as it interweaves the complexities of their spiritual and religious lives as factors in their voting decisions. Their voting patterns, which were once well defined and clear, are murkier, marked, at times, by confused convictions. Hence Dionne’s assertion that there is no “Catholic vote.” This helps explain why they twice did not vote for pro-life George W. Bush.

Translating “human life issues” into the simple act of casting a vote for one candidate, while adhering to Catholic doctrine, all in the name of compassion, is an enormously difficult exercise. Euthanasia, LGBT rights, and immigration along with abortion and contraceptives, are, after all, a complicated bundle of human life issues.

Archbishop Aquila also warned that “Our society suffers and has suffered for quite some time because too few people live an integrated life — one that does not divide ‘the personal’ from ‘the public.’” He must have been addressing those Catholic politicians whose private views differ from their public positions — like Tim Kaine.

Should Clinton have won, Kaine would have become only the second Catholic to be vice president in our history (the first being Joe Biden). But Breitbart observed that Kaine’s “habit of showcasing his faith credentials is proving to be a two-edged sword, as more and more Catholics find his ambiguous relationship with Church teaching to be deeply problematic.” For Catholics, then, like many Americans, this election might have been more anti-Clinton/Kaine than pro-Trump.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and a former Cape Cod Times columnist.