“Today we too often look at the Church as a struggle between left and right, and we invest a lot of energy into trying to determine which side is winning. If we judge the Church – and the pope – in political terms, we not only risk doing harm to the unity of the Church; we risk missing the point of the Church altogether.”
This past week, I had the pleasure of attending a book event for Steven Milles’s, “Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump”. This event comes after a few months since seminar began and we are now returning to question this idea of the “Catholic vote”, the very idea that kickstarted our discussion about Catholicism in America. After having read, listened to, and observed a variety of primary and tertiary sources over the past two months, my understanding of how Catholics have voted in the past and how they vote now will be explored here.
This idea of the “Catholic vote” was introduced to me after reading the introduction and first chapter of Steven Milles’s, “Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump”. In order to effectively discuss how American Catholics have historically voted and attempt to establish a voting pattern, it is critical to analyze the character of American Catholicism. As Milles quotes in his novel, “It is a peculiar and distinctive feature of Catholicism in the United States, which developed in opposition to a prevailing Protestantism, to think in terms of identity like this, to define Catholic faith against other things rather than to conceive of it as for something”. In fact, Miller brought up this idea when we went to see him at his book event. He claims that American Catholicism has developed “against” other ideologies, in that Catholics “are not this or are not that”. American Catholics characterize themselves by comparing themselves to other religions and identifying what they “are not”, instead of identifying what they “are”. Moreover, Charles R. Morris describes American Catholicism as “in America, vehemently for America, but never of America”. American Catholicism prides itself on standing out from all other religious groups in America and even mainstream American ideologies, which has consequently affected its development inside a nation that is constantly vulnerable to change.
This idea that American Catholicism was and still is “in America, vehemently for America, but never of America” has launched our seminar’s discussion into the different social movements that Catholics have participated in. Analyzing movements like the Labor Union, fighting and resisting wars, immigration, race and racism, and sex and gender, a greater sense of how Catholicism has been infused into the movements and issues that have shaken America, which consequently allows us to examine the voting demographics for Catholics since its inception in the United States.
My preliminary understanding of the “Catholic vote” was quite minimal to say the least. I have never really examined voter statistics in the past and never would have thought that Catholics had such a foothold in each American election. I would not have even thought that religious groups could be categorized together in terms of the way that they vote. Throughout our preliminary discussion in seminar, I would not have been able to fully describe how Catholics turn up at the polls. I probably would have said that all Catholics were Conservatives because of their strict, fixed views on abortion and gender rights. Just like every other average American, I did not fully know the difference between Conservatives, Liberals, Republicans, and Democrats, and I would often consider the terms synonymous, with little to no difference between the different groups. Before learning about the history of Catholics through the lens of different social issues, I would have assumed that American Catholics would not have voted in any particular way, and if even if they did, they would probably lean towards conservatism the most.
I have come to understand that I could not be more wrong. The role of Catholics in American culture has changed drastically as a result of the mass immigrations of Catholics from Europe. By the beginning of the 20th century, Catholics had represented 14 percent of the total U.S. population, and would have soon become the largest religious group in America. Throughout the early 1900s, a variety of cultural changes pushed the liberalization of the Democratic Party, coincidentally leading to the culmination of “New Liberals” in America. However, Catholics at the time were categorized as devoted Democrats, which was very much to my surprise. This was, however, before the 1960s, and before the Second Vatican Council redefined Catholicism’s place in America.
Since the 60s, however, Catholics have come to “represent a quarter of the nation’s electorate and were now one of the nation’s largest swing groups”. And they did not just remain Democrats like they had in the beginning of the 20th century. Some Democratic Catholics started to stray away from the party and turned to support the Republican Party. However, Catholics’ party affiliation is not as simple as that, as a quote by Bob Casey Jr. describes Catholics as “every bit as diverse as any other sort of voters out there, with conservative Democrats and moderates”.
And this is exactly how I have come to understand the Catholic vote now. Catholic voters are much more diverse than it may seem, as even I assumed that all Catholics had fallen into a specific voting pattern. To further dive into this idea of Catholic voters being more diverse if anything, we can examine the most recent Presidential election in 2016. As an NCR article states, “Since 1952, Catholics have voted for Democratic presidential candidates a least 10 times and for Republican candidates four times, with three elections too close to call”. However, in the 2016 election, republican candidate Donald Trump won the presidency, and in almost every case in years past, Catholics voted for the winner, or at least the winner of the popular vote. The polls showed that a majority of Catholics voted for Trump, in fact is was 50% for Trump, 46% for Clinton. With Catholics making up “about 22 percent of eligible voters”, Catholics clearly went down the conservative path this past election, and elected the Republican candidate. But this is direct contrast to how Catholics have voted for years and years prior.
So where do Catholics stand politically? From how I see it, they are more split than ever. In fact, diving into the 2016 election just a little deeper, “fever white Catholics [voted] for Trump and more Hispanics [voted] for Clinton”. So, not only have Catholics kind of flip-flopped between party affiliation from election to election, there are staunch divides internally in the American Catholic population. White Catholics are definitely voting Republican in 2018, and Hispanic Catholics are voting Democratic. Beyond that, there is a population of young Catholics, like myself, who are more Democratic than our Catholic elders. And then there are other groups of Catholics who remain constantly undecided, and it is often these Catholics that are the swing votes for the Catholic vote, and where ever these select individuals land can determine an election.
As I mentioned before, Catholics are just as diverse as anything else, in fact, they might even be more diverse. There are a variety of Catholics that reside with the different political parties, and it is difficult, and even impossible, to clump all Catholic voters together into one political affiliation. And as I would have done in the past, putting all Catholic voters together by the issues they have historically cared about is just as wrong as well, with more and more Catholics caring more about the issues that affect the entire nation, not just the morals and ideals of the Catholic Church.
As Milles says at the end of his first chapter, “the conflict over the place of Catholics in the United States has become a conflict between Catholics. It is fought less over what it means to be an American than over what it means to be a Catholic, and it has taken on the characteristics of the American political polarization. That conflict still reflects the strivings of the immigrants in the American Catholic past, the struggle to bring the old world to the new world and to overcome the differences between them”.
Notes  Millies, Steven P. Good Intentions: a History of Catholic Voters' Road from Roe to Trump. Liturgical Press, 2018.  “Catholic Church and Politics in the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Oct. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_politics_in_the_United_States#Catholic_Conference_on_Industrial_Problems.  “Pollsters Confused about Catholic Voters.” National Catholic Reporter, 20 Apr. 2017, www.ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/pollsters-confused-about-catholic-voters.