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My Take: The myth and reality of the Catholic vote
The author argues there is not one Catholic vote, but three discrete Catholic votes.
February 20th, 2012
11:39 AM ET

My Take: The myth and reality of the Catholic vote

Editor's Note: Stephen S. Schneck is director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

By Stephen S. Schneck, Special to CNN

For years, pollsters and political scientists have been stumped about Catholics.

On one hand, it’s been pretty clear that as American Catholics go, so goes the nation. George W. Bush narrowly won the Catholic vote in 2004 and won a second term. Barack Obama narrowly won the Catholic vote in 2008 and, with it, the White House.

It’s easy to see why Catholics are sometimes seen as the swing voters whose shifting political preferences swing elections.

Nevertheless, the idea of a Catholic bloc is patently ridiculous. As voters, American Catholics mirror the electorate as a whole, divided into Democrats, independents, and Republicans at about the same percentages as all Americans. And it’s hard to trace such political complexity to religious allegiance.

One explanation for why is the sheer number of Catholic voters and their now multigenerational assimilation into American society. About 35 million Catholics voted in 2008. That’s about 27% of all voters.

In the 19th century and for much of the 20th, Catholics self-consciously occupied a distinctive identity in America. Predominantly blue collar, they often lived in white ethnic neighborhoods, attended their own schools and colleges, established their own hospitals and charities, and experienced some level of discrimination.

In those years, Catholics associated overwhelmingly with the Democratic Party, which not only accommodated but promoted policies that advanced ethnic assimilation – everything from minimum wage laws to the GI Bill.

But by finally achieving that assimilation, Catholics in the last 50 years have lost much of their sense of special self-identity. For white Catholics, who are about 60% of the Catholic vote, their distinctiveness in class, education, income, and even ethnicity has grown increasingly ambiguous in America’s famous melting pot.

The melting pot has even transformed Catholics’ relationship to their church. Polling numbers released Friday by CNN about the White House contraception dust-up illustrate this: Only 11% of Catholics polled said they should always obey official church teachings on moral issues like birth control and abortion.

To put this differently, 88% of Catholics in the poll said that it’s OK for Catholics to make up their own minds about these moral issues. That represents a growing trend. In 1992 only 70% supported the “make up their own minds” argument. In 1999 it was 80%.

Today’s Catholics are picky and even suspicious about political signals from the institutional church.

Politically conservative Catholics bristle at do-gooder messaging from their bishops about climate change, immigration reform and Catholicism’s important “preferential option” for the poor. Politically liberal Catholics, meanwhile, are not much swayed by the righteous tone of church pronouncements about same-sex marriage and contraception.

And yet despite the pattern and consequences of assimilation, something Catholic is going on in politics. It’s evident when you drill down into the polling numbers. While there is not an obvious Catholic vote on the macro scale, there are three discrete "Catholic votes” that really matter in American elections.

The first of these is Latino Catholics.  Over the last three decades, Latino immigration has washed over the church in America like a flood.  From insignificant numbers 40 years ago, Latinos now constitute one-third of all American Catholics.

In the not-too-distant future, the majority of American Catholics will probably be Latinos.

Unlike the Italians, Poles, Irish and similar white ethnics, Latino Catholics have retained their distinctive identity as Catholics. Their voting behavior reflects that.

This is particularly true when considered from the perspective of the famous social teachings of the church, which emphasize social and familial solidarity, the common good, preference for the poor, tradition, and welcoming of the immigrant.

Latino American Catholics (excluding Cubans) strongly associated with the Democratic Party in 2008, with 67% of Latino Catholic voters supporting Obama. But the bloc includes swing voters, and turnout can be volatile. This vote can be critical in swing states like Colorado, Florida and New Mexico, and perhaps soon in states like Arizona and Texas.

A little deeper in the weeds are two other important groups of white Catholic voters, who might be called “intentional Catholics” and “cultural Catholics.”

An important social phenomenon for understanding intentional Catholics is what’s sometimes referred to as distillation. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year found that one-third of those raised Catholic have left the church. Fully 10% of the American electorate is formerly Catholic.

Because of assimilation, the glue of tradition and culture that previously inclined many to adhere to the church has lost its stickiness. Leaving is easy, whether by decision or atrophy, and little shame results.

Such disaffiliation happens for liberal reasons, conservative reasons, personal reasons and no reason at all. Some who leave still feel lingering allegiance to things Catholic, but many do not, and former Catholics do not have a distinctive political identity.

But as a result of disaffiliation, many Catholics who remain with the church are “distilled.”  More and more of those who remain are those who actively choose to embrace the church and its teachings. These “intentional Catholics” are the second of the three important groups of Catholic voters.

Largely white, with impressive education levels, mostly suburban and with moderate to high income levels, such Catholics are in evidence in weekly Mass attendance and parish activities. Politically active, intentional Catholic voters lean toward the Republican Party (with some youthful swing voters) and are motivated by economic issues and increasingly by opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration.

“Cultural Catholics” make up the third important group of Catholic voters. They are a complicated mix of mostly white Americans with lower levels of Mass attendance and higher levels of ambivalence toward Church authority.

These assimilated voters have varying education and income levels, often hail from urban and suburban communities, are more female than male - often with blue-collar roots - and are not intentionally but culturally oriented toward the church.

Because of the relative size of the Catholic population in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, swing voters in this group can be pivotal in presidential elections.

Many culturally Catholic voters are at odds with both conservatives and liberals on many issues. They are more socially conservative than the majority of Americans, but many are put off by the more intense social conservatism of intentional Catholics and evangelicals.

They are more economically populist than most Americans but are uncomfortable with the libertarian zeal of the tea party.  They are alienated from the lifestyle liberalism of many progressives but remain supportive of unions and governmental programs for the middle class.

The bishops may have little role in these voters’ personal faith, but cultural Catholics look to the church for the sacraments that mark the turnings of their lives and for the traditions that connect generations. Their religious sensibility might almost be described as ethnic.

Neither Obama nor any of the Republican candidates has clinched the deal for the voters in this group. Whoever does will probably win in November.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen S. Schneck.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Politics

soundoff (1,205 Responses)
  1. taxed enough

    Are we electing a president or a pope? What's more important – the economy or who is sleeping with who?

    February 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Hunchback

      This guy has spent us into a major debt crisis! He has no business being president another term. The general moral decline of society is another problem, but you can't argue that this guy has done us any favors with the economy.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • zephyr

      I think you have forgotten who left the economic mess we are in.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  2. PurpleHeadedYogurtSpitter

    where did they find such an unattractive group of people for that photo. JFC

    February 20, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  3. LinCA

    The cat has a point.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  4. logan5

    Ah, Catholics. I used to be one many years ago, until I finally woke up and realized how absurd the belief system really is. Now I'm a non believer and have never been happier!

    February 20, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Hunchback

      Stick that out to the end.. you'll be back, death is the great equalizer... people always run back when they get scared of their own mortality and what lies beyond. I

      February 20, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Beentheredonethat

      Yep, until you are on your death bed then we will see how silly your thought your religion is. No atheist in foxholes.....guaranteed.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  5. McBob79

    Totally agree! Many Catholics are name only. One needs to look no further than Catholics voting in majority for Barrack Obama who is enthusiastically pro-abortion. For many, I dare say most, organized religion is a matter of convenience, a way to convince themselves, their neighbors, friends, co-workers that they are "good".

    February 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Hunchback

      Catholics got duped last time... it won't happen this time. Hopefully people can see the out of control debt issue, look at Greece and make a logical decision. This guy has to go.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • ab

      Just like Catholics in name only who vote for candidates who support the death penalty?
      Or candidates who are adulterers?
      Or candidates who think that adulterous women should not be stoned to death?
      Do I need to continue?

      February 20, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  6. markphils

    whether catholic vote or no catholic vote OBAMA is going to win the 2012 elections

    February 20, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  7. William

    @HispanicMan: when you say you're a "student of the bible" do you mean you saw one once in a hotel? Hunchback is completely correct when he says "catholics compiled the bilbe": it's a historical fact. At the end of 4th century, various catholic prelates decided what would go in the bible and what would be suppressed, and that was confirmed in Rome in he year 419.
    As for Justin stating that a "proud" catholic "cannot vote for someone who openly supports abortion, gay marriage, etc.", well, if you're going to be consistent, no catholic can vote for someone who supports the death penality. That is absolutely against church teachings. Also, no one who is twice divorced and an admitted adulterer can ever become a "real" cathoic. So how in the world is Gingrich catholic? You can't pick & choose only the bits you like.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Steve

      Let's be clear though. Those prelates were not Roman Catholic. They were Eastern bishops, who today, would be members of the Orthodox Church.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • HispanicMan

      I mean that I study the bible and have greater knowledge of it than you could ever imagine. God is the one who compiled the bible and through his holy spirit, kept it intact for all humankind to benefit from. The Bible actually means "A book of many books" and that is exactly what God did by inspiring different men, with his Holy Spirit, to write and put together the bible as we see it today. Catholicism was by no means inspired by God with his Holy Spirit to do that. They obviously took it upon themselves to do what they felt necessary to protect their way of life and belief, but in no way was is inspired by God himself. Their historical record of hypocrisy and bloodshed in the name of greed and wickedness shows that the Catholic Church could never ever be considered as a tool by God to spread his truths and promises.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • ab

      Prove it

      February 20, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Proven

      February 20, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • logan5

      "prayer changes things"
      Oh really?? Can you provide examples of this change?

      February 20, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • ab

      Hilarious. I prayed that the religious right would be transported to Mars...it didn't work.

      Disproven.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Marty

      Tool!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      2006, the John Templeton Foundation double blind study of the power of prayer... look it up & read it.
      Prayer was NOT successful, actually less so than non prayer. And this was a study done by a religious foundation!!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  9. ab

    Sooo...stereotyping Catholics is a problem, but stereotyping Muslims is still cool, right?

    February 20, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  10. markphils

    whether catholic vote or no catholic vote OBAMA is going to win romney or santorum in the elections

    February 20, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Patrick

      The blatant hatred and disgust for poor people evident in Romney, Santorum and Gingrich's statements is just as off putting to catholic doctrine as is the Obama administration's liberal leaning views on social issues. It will be interesting to see which way intentional Catholics vote in the coming elections.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  11. Rick

    Keep thinking the Catholic vote does not matter. Those who actually attend church and follow the doctrine the best they can, generally vote conservative. The current administration does not stand a chance with them.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      they also help the catholic church in its final destruction to already destroyed childrens lives.. How awful you people are.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  12. Rob

    And like all moral people, it's NOBAMA 2012!!!

    February 20, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • ab

      Good to know that you think pedophiles are moral people.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  13. Hunchback

    The Catholic Church by in large supports the Democratic party on social issues. It's just that this particular President has thrown the bus at the Church. Which is a mistake I believe. I don't think the Catholics are too excited about voting Republican although I think a true conservative is not really a republican anymore. I think Catholics feel betrayed by Obama and his total devotion to the abortionist and the feminist. If he could be more central he would easily win the CAtholic vote and the vote of the country. But he can't! He's way to ideological.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      Obama is a loving family man who is truthful.. The catholic church with its pope and bishops are scam artist. Worse is they destroyed children's lives worldwide. Crimes against humanity.. against small helpless children.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • right of way

      @pervert, you are brainwashed, obama lies all the time. he said he would reduce the deficeit, close gitmo, etc.. lay off the kook-aid.

      February 20, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  14. Pat

    Yes – the Catholic "anything" is a myth. I'm sick of being stereo-typed by the media and it should stop. The Muslim, protestant, atheist, tea party, occupy "votes" are also myths. We all have our individual opinion. Time for this compartmentalizing, polarizing stereotyping media to shut up.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • IceT

      Amen sister .. or brother or just Pat!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  15. PopeJon

    Ouch Hunchback, you got served.... And honestly, a book "invented" 1400 years before the printing press can only be a book of fables, no matter who was safeguarding it....

    February 20, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Hunchback

      No PopeJon, you go served! I have no clue what you are talking about.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  16. Nelson Silva

    JESUS WAS PORTUGUESE!!!!!

    February 20, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  17. right of way

    well it looks like stephen schmuck is just another dolt in the lame stream media trying to get obama re-elected. stephen schmuck you are a disgrace to your religion and should be fired for selling out your religion in favor of your political affiliation. here's a tip, don't put your religion above politics.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • PopeJon

      If you think he's a dolt and the media is "lamestream" then why did you read it or even post here? Are you just looking for a fight or to thump your chest?

      February 20, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • right of way

      @ popejon, why did i post? why did you post? dumb question. well unlike you i start with an open mind before i read all types of articles on a varity of topics to broaden my mind. i read the article and then i commented, which is precisly the point of comment sections. i didn't know he was a dolt until i read the article. dugh! go bother someone else with dumb questions.

      February 20, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  18. Yahwey or the highway

    Anyone who reads the Bible with an open mind (without a predilection to believe or disbelieve it) and comes away a believer shouldn't have the right to a vote.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Rob

      You can take your atheist ideas and shove them where the sun don't shine.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      I can't, that's where I store my Bible!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • right of way

      you don't know much about the bible nor archeology. saddom and gamorah were considered fictional, and lo and behold it has been found. same for the city of troy. some myths have been proven to be fact. noah's flood, proven to be true as well, which actually created the black sea, and submurged over 200 cities in the mediterranean sea. also, some people believe Jesus never existed, but they are wrong. first century historian flavius josephus cronicles Jesus' existence. i'm just giving you facts, but you believe what you want to believe. i don't care, i just want to set the record straight.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  19. Kris Wood

    I only saw Hitler mentioned TWICE in the first page of comments, c'mon guys you're lagging behind!! HITLER HITLER HITLER!!

    February 20, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      Seems like a perfect place for Hitler comments since he was a staunch Catholic & it shaped his life, eventhough as an adult he was not a believer, he just found religion a useful tool.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • An inconvenient truth

      Hitler was a staunch atheist, it does not matter what his childhood was.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • HispanicMan

      Hitler was NOT an atheist. He was 100% Catholic and he demanded and expected the support of the Catholic Church during his reign of terror and murder.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      Sorry inconvenient, you are just very wrong. there is plenty of Hitler history to show it.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Patriarchae

      @an in convenient truh

      “We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity… in fact our movement is Christian. We are filled with a desire for Catholics and Protestants to discover one another in the deep distress of our own people.” – Adolf Hitler

      “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so” – Adolf Hitler

      “The Government of the Reich regards Christianity as the unshakable foundation of the morals and moral code of the nation.” – Adolf Hitler

      Yep, he was an atheist all right!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      "Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."
      -Adolf Hitler (Mein Kampf)

      February 20, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      An inconvenient truth ... what sayest ye?

      February 20, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Rob

      @Hispanicman.....Hitler was an athiest. He demanded support and allegience from everyone, including Germans, or he had you killed. Religion was only a tool to him.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      Rob, read the quote from Hitler above.
      The facts are the facts no matter what you may want to believe or have been told (lied to).

      February 20, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • An inconvenient truth

      You know it Rob, only an idiot would use the words of Hitler as proof to truth. Hitler was as honest about religion as he was about the integrity of Czechoslovakia. Hitler lied about everything. To a national socialist der fuhrer was god, becoming your own god is the ultimate atheist.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      Being a God does not make someone an Atheist LOL. Or are you saying Yahwey was an Atheist?!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • ab

      So, inconvenient, because Hitler said his movement was a Christian one and since he demanded the support of the Catholic church, that means he was an atheist?

      Or was he an atheist only because you said so? Apparently your opinion classifies as evidence now?

      LMFAO!!

      Folks, you can't make this isht up.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  20. HispanicMan

    @Hunchback...Just curious, I am a bible student and I have never heard before that Catholics were commissioned to protect the bible from heresy. Was this before or after Hitler was blessed by the Pope during his massacre of so many millions of innocent people during WWII? I visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and I saw with my own eyes Hitler being blessed on camera by the Pope and if I am correct, Hitler was a devout and staunch Catholic. So where was Catholicism during this hypocrital time of war? I could name quite a few other instances, but I'll just give you this one to defend for now.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Hunchback

      Hitler hated the Catholic Church. Again, history! And... the Church did not approve of Hitler's activity even if a bishop did bless him. History. Pope Pius XII actually hid Jews from the Nazi's during the war. A lot of people get blessed, not all are good people. And if you are bible student, study the history of the Church, the history of the Bible. Read the Fathers of Christianity! Discover the true Faith, the Catholic Faith.

      "The most dangerous activity of countless Catholic clergy is the way in which they 'mope about', spreading despondency. Favorite topics are the 'dangers of a new time', 'the present emergency', 'the gloomy future'. Prophecies are made about the speedy downfall of National Socialism or at the very least mention is made of the transience of all political phenomena, compared with the Catholic Church which will outlive them all. National Socialist achievements and successes are passed over in silence. ... There is thus a deliberated undermining of the very basis of the National Socialist program of reconstruction, the people's trust in leadership of the state." – Adolf Hitler

      February 20, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • dav

      Was that before or after you read the donld duck version,what a fool you are

      February 20, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • HispanicMan

      @Hunchback... You my friend are extremely wrong. History does support and prove, in words and on film, that the Pope did indeed bless Hitler himself as did Bishops and other cold hearted religious leaders who caved in to Hitlers murderous activities. Hitler did indeed love the Church and he did hide behind Catholicism to make his conscience feel good about his murdering of innocent people. The Catholic Church has so much blood on their hands because of Hitler and how they blessed them that no words of denial could ever cover the truth of what the Catholic Church did. You would thing that the Pope would of learned something by his studies of the Dark Ages, but obviously, Satan has too much control over the church to for the Pope to do what is righteous in Gods eyes and to follow Jesus' footsteps closely.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.