A New Generation of Conservative Thought

The Catholic swing vote: the nation’s veto power

By Dr. Grace Vuoto

November 2, 2010

American Catholics are currently polled as favoring the Republican Party by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll. This is a sharp reversal from 2008 when Catholics favored President Barack Obama over GOP presidential nominee John McCain by a margin of 54 percent to 44 percent. In two years, there has been a 34 percentage poll reversal, now giving Republicans a 24 point advantage over Democrats. It is said as California goes, eventually so goes the nation. Yet, another barometer can be: “As goes the Catholic vote, there goes the nation.” Catholics have voted for the winning side in most national elections in recent history. This is among the most powerful swing votes in the nation, especially since Catholics consist of slightly over a quarter of the total national vote.

There is, however, a debate among Catholics on how this power should be used. Pope Benedict XVI has beseeched the flock to use the vote “for the promotion of the common good” —that is, to safeguard the unborn, protect the natural family structure and the rights of parents to educate their children. In a 2004 memo to U.S. bishops, then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that a vote for a pro-choice candidate renders the voter guilty of “formal cooperation with evil;” the voter who does so should exclude himself from Communion. Recently, Catholic Cardinal-designate Raymond Burke said to Catholic Action for Faith and Family that voting is a “serious moral obligation” and that Catholics should not vote for pro-choice candidates if they are to remain true to the principles of their faith. “You could never justify voting for a candidate who not only does not want to limit abortion but believes that it should be available to everyone," he said.

However, many Catholics disagree that casting a vote for pro-choice Democratic candidates is indeed a betrayal of their faith. Among the most cited arguments is that candidates who favor war, for example, or who want to deport illegal immigrants are in equal violation of the cardinal tenets of the faith as those who are pro-choice. In a Nov. 1 Washington Post article titled “Catholics don’t want to be told how to vote,” former president of Catholics for Choice, Frances Kissling, insists that Catholics want their religious leaders to butt out of politics. “What people consider religious or spiritual is highly subjective,” she states. “For some every thought word and deed is spiritual. Some may consider voting a spiritual act; some may reserve the word spirituality for more intimate contact with the divine. Voting is perhaps an expression of call to do justice which is not exclusively a religious instinct. All Catholics, however, consider their parish church a spiritual place and the Mass a sacred event. If faith leaders turn that sacred place into a campaign stop, the people do care. More important the bishops squander their moral authority when they spend it on politics rather than spirituality.”

The key question for contemporary Catholics remains: Is the Democratic Party now fundamentally anti-Catholic? This was certainly not the case for most of our nation’s history. The overwhelming majority of Catholics supported the Democratic Party from the mid-nineteenth century into the second half of the twentieth century. A majority of Catholics supported Democratic leaders such as Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. However, Catholics began to change their allegiance in the late 1960s as many feared that the Democratic Party leadership was embarking on social experimentation that was contrary to their most sacred values.

Since the Democratic Party embraced social liberalism, the Catholic vote has been fractured amongst the parties. The majority of Catholics voted for Republicans such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The majority can also shift back toward Democrats, opting for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In 2000, the Catholic vote went to Al Gore, but swung back to George W. Bush in 2004. In 2008, President Obama secured the majority of Catholic allegiance only to dissipate it by the mid-term election. Hence, since the late 1960s, Catholics have moved toward the Republican Party in fits and starts but have by and large been schizophrenic in the use of their voting power.

It is now time for American Catholics to rise to the occasion in a defining moment in our nation’s history. Imagine if Catholic voters no longer swung wildly from side to side between the parties and concentrated their efforts on establishing a national platform? This would in effect mean that Catholics would hold a veto over both parties. The Catholic vote today is potentially as powerful as was the original founding Protestant vision of erecting “a city upon a hill”—a godly community that can wield its political power for the common good. While respecting the boundaries between church and state and upholding the principles of religious freedom, Catholic Americans nonetheless have the potential to restore America to its founding Christian ideals. They can cajole both parties to adopt Catholic values.

The primary task of Catholic leaders, both secular and religious, is to accept this challenge. In order to do so, they must ignore the voices of secular humanists who are trying to cow Christians into submission. These secularists are wolves in sheep’s clothing: They propagate the myth that activism rooted in faith is to be feared as a form of extremism and fanaticism. This is because secular humanists seek to ensure that the only activism that is permitted is one that advances the permissive society. Hence, when ethnic or racial groups, such as blacks and Hispanics—or lobby groups such as gays and lesbians—speak openly about exercising political power as a group, this is welcomed and encouraged. Yet, when Christians do so, the liberal commentators raise the boogeyman of “religious intolerance” and stir irrational fears about the impending “theocracy.”

As long as we allow anti-Christian and anti-Catholic bigotry to penetrate, define and shape us, we will allow our opponents to run roughshod in the public square, slowly divesting our nation of its Christian roots. If, on the other hand, we unite and work in harmony toward specific political goals, especially by establishing a national platform, we shall triumph. It is high time Catholics defend what the late Pope John Paul II called, “the culture of life.” In short, it is time for a moral restoration.

Catholic voters hold the balance of power in America: Let us have the courage to bring about a Christian political awakening that will rescue America from the darkness of secular liberalism.

-Dr. Grace Vuoto is the Executive Director of The Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.