This time, for Democrats, Catholics matter
As the 2020 election draws close, political prognosticators look to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to see if President Trump can replicate his 2016 success in the “Big Three” states that gave him the presidency. Trump won these states by the narrowest of margins: Pennsylvania, 44,292 votes; Michigan, 10,704; and Wisconsin, 22,748. Trump’s triumphs rested not only on his much-heralded ability to win votes from non-college rural whites but, most importantly, white Catholics. Nationwide, Trump captured 60 percent of the 2016 white Catholic vote, a key factor in his Midwest victories where older white Catholics have an outsized presence. According the data gathered by Pew Research, Catholics comprise 24 percent of the adult population in Pennsylvania, 18 percent in Michigan and 25 percent in Wisconsin.
This time, Trump has a formidable opponent in Joe Biden. Biden has made his Catholic identity an indispensable element of his personal biography. And it has resonated. According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 51 percent of white Catholics back Biden. And in the Big Three States, Biden has an average lead of 7 percent in Pennsylvania, 7 percent in Michigan and 6.3 percent in Wisconsin. Winning this trifecta is tantamount to a Biden victory.
While Biden is doing well among Catholics, this is a far cry from the overwhelming support Catholics gave John F. Kennedy in 1960. Back then, only one issue mattered: Could a Catholic become president? Many believed Kennedy would be subservient to the pope. Newspaper headlines captured the public’s obsession with religion: “Democrats Hit Back on Religion” (New York Times); “Johnson Blasts ‘Haters’ Attacks on Catholics” (Washington Post); “Creed Issue Must Be Met, Bob Kennedy Says Here” (Cincinnati Enquirer); “Mrs. FDR Hits Religious Bias in Talk to Negroes” (Baltimore Sun). And on Election Day, religion was the great divide: Kennedy won 78 percent of the Catholic vote; Richard Nixon received 63 percent support from white Protestants.
But in the decades following Kennedy’s victory, Catholics moved increasingly into the Republican column. One reason was the emergence of social and cultural issues. Foremost among these was abortion. Following the controversial 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which struck down state laws prohibiting abortion, the Catholic bishops emphasized the importance of candidates holding pro-life positions.
This became very apparent when Democrats nominated another Massachusetts Catholic for president, John F. Kerry, in 2004. Several Catholic prelates denied Kerry communion because of his support for Roe, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement that no Catholic institution should bestow any “honors, awards, or platforms” to those “who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”
Another reason for greater Catholic Republican support was the strong anti-communist stance taken by the first Polish pope, St. John Paul II. In 1979, John Paul traveled to his native Poland, then still under Soviet domination. There he denounced communist rule, telling a mass audience: “Christ will never approve that man be considered, or that man consider himself merely as a means of production, or that he be appreciated, esteemed and valued in accordance with that principle.” John Paul’s anti-communism was echoed by Ronald Reagan, who in 1983 denounced the Soviet Union as the “focus of evil in the modern world.” One year later, Reagan granted diplomatic recognition to the Vatican with the White House press spokesperson saying the president held John Paul II in “high esteem.”
But times have changed, and so has the Catholic attraction to the Republican Party. Today, the once divisive social and cultural issues have found a growing public consensus. According to one poll, 60 percent of all Catholics and 62 percent of white Catholics support Roe v. Wade as a matter of settled law. Gay marriage also has strong Catholic support, rising from 40 percent in 2001 to 61 percent in 2019. More Catholic parishes have reached out to their gay and lesbian parishioners, and Fr. James Martin has authored a path-breaking book on the subject titled “Building a Bridge.”
Most importantly, there has been a shift at the Vatican. In a recent encyclical, Pope Francis called for a stronger sense of fraternity, and denounced those who appeal to the “basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population.” Instead, Francis has repeated his plea for a renewed appreciation of politics as “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity inasmuch as it seeks the common good.” Building a “civilization of love” means welcoming the immigrant, and caring for “the smallest, the weakest, the poorest [who] should touch our hearts.”
The result is a greater alignment between Catholics and the Democratic Party. Even before the pandemic, there were signs that Catholics were moving away from a nationalistic, Trump-dominated, populist Republican party. A growing Hispanic population was moving the Catholic vote in a more pro-Democratic direction. In 2016, 67 percent of Hispanic Catholics supported Hillary Clinton for president. Four years later Democrats have nominated a faithful Catholic for whom mass attendance and religion are important touchstones.
Joe Biden’s religiosity has made it harder for Trump to demonize him as being “against God” and a president who would “hurt the Bible.” Today, more Catholics say that being pro-life is more than being anti-abortion. Sr. Mary Traupman, for one, writes that pro-life must also mean protecting “the lives of those already born; those made destitute, abandoned, underprivileged; the vulnerable infirm and the elderly exposed to covert euthanasia; victims of human trafficking and new forms of slavery; those exposed to every form of rejection.” And, most importantly, pro-lifers must align themselves with those who are suffering or have died from the coronavirus.
Pope Francis’s denunciation of populism and his emphasis on a fraternity that works for the common good is creating a convergence of Catholic support for Joe Biden. This shift makes it even more likely Biden will win the “Big Three” of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin on the strength of his Catholic support.
Elections are won or lost at the margins. The support Joe Biden is receiving from older, white Catholics like himself puts the Democrat on the doorstep of becoming only the second Catholic in U.S. history to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?” and is a national co-chair of Catholics for Biden.
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