November 27, 2006
The Catholic Vote
— Martin E. Marty
"God Gap Narrows as Democrats Take Majority of Catholic Vote" is Joe Feuerherd's headline in the liberal National Catholic Reporter (November 17). "Republican hopes that socially conservative church-going Catholics would help forestall an electoral catastrophe in the 2006 midterm elections were not simply dashed. They were obliterated, a real thumping." The NCR editors had had little to cheer about on the Catholic vote front in recent years. They and we had been told by many pundits that Roman Catholics were securely relocating themselves as blocs or in slots that would help make up a permanent Republican hegemony.
Now, however, "The Public Shakes Things Up." This is the headline for the post-election column by editor Tom Roberts. Blaming or crediting the war in Iraq most of all for the change, he pointed to the victory of progressive Kathleen Sebelius for governor in "redder than red" Kansas, among many other indicators. He reported that Republican strategists had "hoped the so-called God gap" would continue to work in their favor. But in exit polls, for whatever they're worth, 55 percent of Catholics said they voted Democratic. Reliable analyst John Green, who watches these things for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, observed: "More telling ... is that white Catholics -- considered the most swinging of swing voters -- gave a majority (50 percent) of their vote to Democratic candidates" -- a surprise.
Malfeasance, the Foley-Haggard-Katrina cluster of events, and issues of corruption and competence (more than philosophy and theology) were major determinants. Opposition to abortion and gay marriage always galvanizes many, but this time not enough. Referendums on such issues offered mixed news. Green noted that if those two issues were not still prominent, ever more Catholics and Evangelicals would fold into the Democratic Party. "Catholics care more about right and wrong than right and left," said Alexia Kelly of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Jeff Carr of the evangelical Sojourners group said that the "big losers" were "the secular left and the religious right."
The postscript editorial page in NCR judged the whole election "A Move Away from Extremism." "The unilateral projection of U.S. power abroad and a domestic program that put individualism in hyper mode, and wrapped it all in a religiosity owing to the most extreme and conservative brand of Christianity" did not hold the place it had for several years.
While the returns gave liberal Catholics an occasion to cheer, the public at large may well welcome the shifting attitudes within the Catholic fold. It is possible to make too much of one election as a turning point, but among other things it did lead editorialists to pay attention to more kinds of religious voters than those in the Christian Right, which they had seen as almost all-powerful.
Week after week we keep noting James Madison's observation that the security of rights in a republic depends on the diversity of interests, sects, and the like. We can be sure that those weary of polarization will be working to energize the non-extremists, whose commitments are yet hard to assess.
The National Catholic Reporter can be accessed online at: http://ncronline.org/.
Joe Feuerherd's article can be found at: http://ncronline.org/NCR_Online/archives2/2006d/111706/111706h.php.
Tom Roberts's article can be found at:
The editorial "A Move Away from Extremism" can be found at: http://ncronline.org/NCR_Online/archives2/2006d/111706/111706r.htm.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.