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. Jesucrisco

    The Catholic vote is a myth. You have hard core crazies who are obsessed with birth control and abortion and defend child molesting priests and then you have normal, sane, people who attend mass once in a while.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:58 pm |



    February 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  3. Leucadia Bob


    February 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  4. tepeters

    The election will be one by the candidate who wins the most votes from most of the various groups in which we divide the electorate. No one group is really going to determine the outcome.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  5. Jand Meditz

    Once again. the article was written in light of surface judgments not exegesis.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  6. gary

    If all the atheists would not fear vandalism and put atheist stickers on their cars, you would see we are in the majority. We are making progress, slowly coming out, slowing gaining political and social power. Xtianity is a sick, ancient cult and must go. End the bigotry, hate, inquisitions,dark ages ... end religious cults ASAP.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Chuck

      Gary, you are so right. I had an "Atheists Think!" sign in my yard that was vandalized twice and then stolen. I wouldn't go into someone's yard and steal their "love jesus" sign. I won't put my favorite bumper sticker (Don't Pray in My School and I won't think in your church) on my car after some friends with various atheism stickers had their cars "Keyed. We know where the real intolerance lies.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Liam Dillingham

      Some Atheists (like myself) aren't trying to pry you away from your religion, we just can't seem to think of why people are so stupid to think that there is a god, its completely illogical in my eyes.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • /sigh

      exactly, religion has been the cause of almost every single attrocity throughout history and yet stupid people still worship it and call it a belief of good and peace, what a joke. I have never seen such a large group of hateful bigots than those who follow a religion.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  7. MaryM

    Suppose we’ve chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we’re just making him madder.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  8. loch

    I'm not sure if there is such thing as a Catholic vote, rather personal perspective influenced by ethnicity and where one lives. A Catholic individual votes according to his political affiliation or moral compass. Also, a Catholic, similar to any other citizen vote in accordance to his informed conscience or lack thereof on issues that interest them.

    I will end by saying that I am a Catholic and very proud of it.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  9. Urananus

    The catholic vote never gets counted Its only who the states want to count which are Pure Christian votes

    February 24, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  10. Urananus

    The catholic vote never gets counted

    February 24, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  11. scranton

    Well one thing is perfectly clear is that the media loves to attack the Catholic church. Way to go Obama your little plan is succeeding.

    February 24, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  12. yneemee

    The real myth is the crapola that CNN writes as "news"

    February 24, 2012 at 12:10 am |
  13. brian

    As people evolve slowly, religion will fade out eventually. Civilizations make progress as the people come to their senses and begin to use logic. It might take 1000 years but it will happen. Look at the progress we have made in the last 100 years as a human race. There will always be people who try to hold back progress ( conservatives, republicans), but in the end logic will prevail.

    February 23, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  14. Blind CS

    Part of Catholic theology is a myth. Especially the intercession, etc...

    February 23, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Blind CS

      Catholic belief system is not really Biblically based.

      February 23, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Josh

      As a catholic I somewhat agree with you. The church considers the scripture to be written by authors inspired by God, but not to be literally, word for word, true. A simple example is where the Holy Family went after the nativity. St Matthew, who was focusing on how Jesus fulfuls old testiment prophesey says Egypt. Luke who was focusing on how Jesus fufilled the law, says the Temple.

      Catholics believe that Jesus followed the law and fulfills old testiment prophesey (these 2 ideas are what God is saying to us), but doesn't really take a position on where the family actually went from Bethlehem (this doesn't really matter).

      Also the Church predates all of the New Testement, so it can't be biblically based as later churches can be. The New Testement is based on the church (Roman, Antiochian and Judean) and Jesus's life, not the other way around.

      February 24, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Josh

      I worded my last sentence poorly. The NT is based on Jesus and the Church. Jesus and the Church are not therefore based on the NT.

      February 24, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • loch

      Blind CS, I'm surprised that you never ask anyone to pray for you; isn't that what you would call an intercession?

      February 25, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  15. Peacemaker

    No the Catholic vote is not a myth! We, Catholics (those of us, who are registered in parishes, which is how we are counted) voted for President Obama in '08..... 54% of us did. And we will again. Why? Because, we care for Social Justice issues, we care about the separation of church and state. We love our bishops, but we want the bishops OUT of U.S. politics. I could write more.... but enough to say, this cradle Catholic will vote for Pres. Obama again.

    February 23, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Josh

      I disagree, the government should keep relgious issues out of the polical sphere. Changing a rule to mandate Catholic Universities and Hospitals have to pay for birth control is the problem, not the Bishops.

      February 24, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • loch

      Why would a cradle Catholic vote for someone whose part of his ideology is to destroy the Catholic Church?

      February 25, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • Consultofactus

      Social Justice????? Let's try this for your "social justice"....how about women priests? OK, ok, how about inequality between the world's rich and poor? The Vatican has untold treasure in gold, jewels, art, property, etc, etc – enough to feed and clothe the world's truly needy several times over. Please, tell me just where and when did Jesus say "This is my body given for you – so put it in a huge ornate building full of treasure"? Then you say you love your bishops – why don't you do as they instruct you? Talk about injustice, can you imagine anything more unjust than a living baby just exiting the birth canal, totally innocent and full of God's promise being murdered by a "doctor" because he or she was a little too troublesome for the mom to deal with – well, guess who consistently voted for partial birth abortion EVEN INCLUDING KILLING A LIVE BORN INFANT – Yes, your new messiah, Barack Obama. Tell me Catholic – when are YOU going to start walking with the Lord????

      February 25, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  16. mr thoughtful

    I've read this essay probably five times. I'm just amazed that this guys nails it so well. I was born Catholic, raised Catholic, and even though I don't now much go to church, I still feel like I'm Catholic and it matters to me in things like politics. And my family and Catholic friends and acquaintances all seem to fall into the categories described here. For you folks who aren't Catholic, this essay is pretty good snapshot of what Catholics in America are today.

    February 23, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Josh

      I agree, I am an "Intentional Catholic", who had a Catholic father and Presbyterian mother and was raised in both traditions. In my mother's church people don't come and go as fluidly. The church is so small that if you miss a few services in a row they call you at home and see what's up. This tends to lead to clean breaks, so you are either a member or your not. Where in the Catholic Church, despite twice the # of masses it is rediculously packed on major holidays because there are so many people who remain Catholic, despite not be able (or willing) to regularly attend. I suspect more churches are like the Catholic in this respect than like my mother's.

      February 24, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  17. Chris

    As a Catholic convert I find this discussion parallel to those from the Jerry Falwell era when righteousness was linked to the platform of the "silent majority". The political posturing drove me to seek a church that was more inclusive of God's all children. What I hear from the "distilled" Catholics in my upscale, Caucasian parish reminds me of an earlier era when I sat in the pew of a Protestant church and wondered if Jesus would recognize his message when it is wrapped in a shroud of politics, and self aggrandizement. The worst offender is running for president this year and does NOT have my vote.

    February 23, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  18. Michael

    I am a devout American Catholic. I am greatly saddened by how assimilated American Catholics have become into mainstream American Protestant culture. Too many American Catholics pick and choose what Catholic rules to follow. From contraspectives to obedience to the Pope. Yet these rule breakers still call themselves Catholic. If you do not follow the rules you are not a real Catholic. Pretending to be a Catholic when you are not really one does a great disservice to us real Catholics. Our Catholic forefathers who immigrated to the U.S. from Europe would be shocked by the Catholic community today - so many rule breakers.

    February 23, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  19. John McBeth

    If you really want to stir the pot...ask either of the remaining Catholic groups if "cultural" Catholics are true believers...

    February 22, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  20. Redwinghawk

    Why can't we get along? Just let other people have their own opinions and respect their right to do so. We can agree to disagree. That's why we have elections.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • BasedInReality

      That is very naive of you. If you know anything about religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, you would know that oppression and tyranny is not only written into their religious texts, it is mandated that they insist that everyone adopt their religion or suffer whatever consequences they can get away with in the current culture that they live in. They cannot live and let live or just "get along" like you say. It's like asking a fish to sprout feathers and fly. Fortunately the fastest growing segment of society is rejecting religions completely. Not that is a non-violient group that can get along and live and let live because they have no clergy or holy texts promoting hate and prejudices.

      February 23, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Educated&Atheist

      nice, but ..... whackos believing in ghosts, demons, deities and other invisible beings want to dictate national policy. God-nuts are just that ... nuts

      February 26, 2012 at 7:50 am |
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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.