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Catholics as ‘Values Voters’

By
October 27, 2004

In the aftermath of the 2004 Presidential contest, political commentators are scurrying to explain both the makeup and motivation of so-called “values voters” who supposedly tipped the election for George W. Bush. According to the pre-election punditocracy, Catholics were the ultimate swing voters because what was on average their blue-collar ethnicity, their northern industrial habitat, and their ear for the church’s social teachings on war and peace would make them a natural constituency for the Democratic Party. If Kerry could come off as sufficiently macho and patriotic—which he did—or honest and upfront about his own personal Catholicism—which in the waning days of the campaign he most likely did as well—he would win their hearts and minds.

According to the post-election postmortems, however, the Democrats did not win enough Catholic hearts and minds because the latter thought and behaved in the polling booth more like Bible Belt evangelicals. And, with the credit now going to Karl Rove, Catholics showed up in greater numbers on Election Day than ever in the past.

The values voter gradually became synonymous in the great national media eye with the “religious traditionalist”, who was more alarmed by the rising specter of court-sanctioned gay matrimony than the outsourcing of jobs to India or the steeltown, high school football hero who had just come home from Iraq in a body bag. If their kids still had to work at WalMart upon college graduation from Notre Dame, it wasn’t half as bad as their taking a job in a stem cell research lab.

Since the election was still very close—though not nearly as close as Bush vs. Gore in 2000—the media have been forced to magnify very subtle errors in judgment into global trend lines. Five days after the election the analysts began to notice that maybe things really hadn’t changed that much in four years. There were simply more conservative evangelicals voting in swing states than there were secular-minded twenty-somethings with cell phones. And the evangelicals turned out slightly more strongly for Bush than the “youth vote” did for Kerry. That all tallied up to a three-million, or two-and-a-half percent, vote margin. Although impressive, not necessarily dramatic.

The same can be said about the Catholic “swing vote.” The actual statistics suggest that more Catholics opted for Bush this time around than four years ago. Last election Gore won 50 percent of the general Catholic vote versus 46 percent for Bush. Catholics comprise 27 percent of the entire voting population. So, on this occasion, the tide was reversed. Bush got 52 percent. Kerry—a Catholic—received only 47 percent.

As expected, the heavily Catholic Northeast went for Kerry. The western and upper Great Lakes states, with even more of a traditional Catholic electoral base, also held fast for the Democrats. These Catholics are largely white and of Eastern European descent and did not significantly alter their past voting habits.

However, there were many “traditional values voters,” most of whom are on the bleeding edge of de-industrialization throughout the Rust Belt, who seemed nearly as concerned about job losses as they were about the so-called “moral” challenges facing the nation. Jack Martin, a religious conservative, huffed right after the election in The Illinois Leader that his fellow Catholics “voted overwhelming for an apostate Catholic for president” and that the blue state victors have “Catholics to thank.”

On the other hand, the Catholic vote did matter in the West and Southwest, where Hispanics are the dominant minority. Since 2000 Hispanics have burgeoned from 6 percent to 8 percent of the electorate. Bush captured 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, a jump of 9 percent over 2000. He gained even more among Hispanic Catholics.

The Hispanic lurch toward Bush can only very likely be explained on the basis of the values vote. A little noticed sidebar to the long election campaign was the way in which Denver and Phoenix’s Hispanic political and cultural leaders subtly resisted, if not openly opposed, the various facets of the pro-gay political agenda. Most likely because of this factor, New Mexico, which went for Gore in 2000 came out with a margin for Bush this year.

The one exception was Colorado’s new Democratic Senator Ken Salazar, who took a slightly more “progressive” stance on gay issues than before in order to distinguish himself from Republican Peter Coors, another Catholic who edged right in to come across as “consistent” with church positions and to satisfy his conservative base. Salazar bucked the national currents to appeal to Colorado’s white suburban and metro voters, who are more socially liberal than the rest of the Rocky Mountain region.

Bush’s popularity with the Cuban population in Miami strengthened as well, helping make Florida less competitive for the Democrats on this round.

Did Catholics swing the election? Overall, the answer seems to be no. But the fast-growing Hispanic segment of the population will most likely be a force with which American politicians must reckon, particularly when values issues are on the table.

Hispanics are not only a diverse ethnic grouping, they tend to be more attentive politically to what the Catholic Church stresses about social issues. If the Church had come out as strongly against the Iraq War as it did abortion and gay marriage, the results might have been different.

The sizable numbers of Hispanics now leaving Catholicism—Puerto Ricans are an exception—are flocking into the more socially conservative wing of evangelical Protestantism. Furthermore, much of the swelling Hispanic population is in the Bible Belt.

If there is any one lesson to be learned from this election, social theorists are going to have to revise slightly what one means by not only the “values voter”, but the “religious right” in this country.

G

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and co-director of Res Publica, a national organization of scholars and community leaders exploring issues of religion and American public life.

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