Cover story -- Survey of U.S. Catholics
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Issue Date:  September 30, 2005

American Catholics and party politics

Demography, commitment and social teachings


American Catholics played an important if not decisive role in the 2004 national elections. Abortion, same sex marriage and stem cell research were all important issues on the minds of voters, and all indications are that they will continue to be. These issues have become part of a culture war in which two opposing views of the good society have increasingly spread across secular and religious lines. The lines are clearly drawn within the U.S. Congress, where conservative Protestants and Catholics form the core of the Republican Party while progressive Catholics, Jews and African- Americans form the core of the Democratic Party.

For American Catholics, the roots of this growing polarization, and with it a questioning of moral authority of the Vatican, are multifold. They are found in the rising level of formal education of Catholics, in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, in the decision of Pope Paul VI to reject the recommendation of his Birth Control Commission to change the church’s teaching on birth control, in the failure of U.S. bishops to support the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s effort to open a national dialogue on “the consistent ethic of life,” in the efforts of Pope John Paul II to refocus the church’s moral authority back to the Vatican, and most recently in the sex abuse scandal. (See for example, Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Revolution, 2005; D’Antonio et al, American Catholics, 1989, 1995 and 2001.)

Since 1980, the Democratic and Republican parties have developed increasingly opposing positions on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The voting of Catholic members of the House and Senate conforms more and more to party positions on these issues. Issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage have been narrowly framed by the Republican Party as “culture of life” and “family values” issues. Family values are not seen as including health care for all citizens, a living wage for all full-time workers, or even a raise in the minimum wage that would meet changes in the cost of living, issues that the Democrats and the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have long supported. But as Gene Burns points out (The Moral Veto: Framing Contraception, Abortion and Cultural Pluralism in the United States, 2005), the Republicans’ ability to frame the issues with such terms made a significant difference in the election. The idea of a living wage, which has begun to gain some resonance at municipal levels, has not been framed so as to become salient at the national level.

Thus, just as the Catholic church’s moral authority has been weakened by its teaching on birth control, its teachings on abortion and same-sex marriage have drawn attention away from its teachings in support of issues such as poor families without health insurance. Increasingly, knowing a person is Catholic does not predict her or his attitudes on these issues.

Our 2005 survey of American Catholics examined the relationship between political party preference (Democrat, Republican, Independent) and some of the important issues that continue to divide American Catholics. Since the 2005 survey is the first one to include party preference, we do not have trend data on this.

A demographic overview

Our findings (Table 4) show that 41 percent of Catholics are Democrats, with Republicans at 37 percent and Independents at 22 percent. This is close to the findings from Pew Research and other studies in which Democrats claimed between 40 percent and 42 percent of the total Catholic population, Republicans between 36 percent and 38 percent, with Independents (including Greens) getting most of the others.

Since John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, Republicans have increasingly contested for and won the Catholic vote. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman won with majority support from Catholics; Catholic support then reached its zenith when Kennedy won the 1960 election with 78 percent of the Catholic vote. Since then, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and George W. Bush in 2004 have captured a majority of the Catholic vote. The last two Democrats to win a majority of the Catholic vote were Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1996.

Certainly, some of the change in the Catholic vote may be accounted for by Catholic opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. (See James Carville and others, “Reclaiming the Catholic Vote,” Democracy Corps, March 29.) Catholics have moved up the socioeconomic ladder, and their movement to the suburbs has affected their party alignment. Some evidence of this mobility is found in Table 4. When broken down by gender, we find that Catholic women constitute a strong majority of the Democrats in the survey (57 percent). Among the Republicans in the survey, women constitute 51 percent. Among those who call themselves Independents, 54 percent are women. Since women constitute 54 percent of the entire sample, it is within the Democratic Party that the 14-point difference between women and men is statistically significant. There are no significant differences in marriage patterns, although Republicans are slightly more likely to be married, but also divorced, and Democrats more likely to have never married. The regional distribution (not depicted here) shows that the two parties have similar strengths in all four regions. Republicans have more members with college and graduate and professional degrees; Democrats have more who had a high school education or less. This fits with the finding that more Democrats than Republicans are found in the pre-Vatican II generation (born before 1940), which has the lowest percentage of Catholics with college-plus education. Post-Vatican II Catholics were significantly more Republican than Democratic. However, when we break down the post-Vatican II generation into Gen X, all those born between 1961 and 1978, and the new Millennials, the youngest group of Catholics born between 1979 and 1987, we find a striking difference:

Generation X: Republicans, 49 percent; Democrats, 34 percent; Independents, 17 percent. Millennials: Republicans, 29 percent; Democrats, 58 percent; Independents, 13 percent

The post-election Zogby Report showed that Bush won 56 percent of the Gen X vote while Kerry won 62 percent of those aged 18-24. We will have to wait until our next survey in 2011 to see whether the swing of young adults toward the Democrats is a real trend or only an aberration.

The differences are reflected also in household income levels. More than a quarter of all Democrats reported annual household incomes under $35,000; with Republicans, it was one out of six. Republicans were more likely to have higher incomes in the middle range between $35,000 and $75,000, and they also enjoyed small advantages at the highest levels.

Our demographic overview of American Catholics reveals many of the same conditions that have come to characterize the two parties. Catholic women are more Democratic than Republican, and women are the majority in both parties now, as they are in the country as a whole. Democrats are older, Republicans younger, with the new Millennial generation still in question.

Behavior and commitment of American Catholics by party

Are the Catholic Republicans and Democrats different in their religious lives? Table 5 presents eight key measures of behavior and commitment to the Catholic church. Two-thirds of all Catholics are registered members of a parish, Republicans are a bit more so. Democrats (36 percent) are slightly more likely than Republicans (30 percent) to attend Mass at least weekly, but over the monthly cycle, the figures even out. For both groups less than half said the church is among the most important parts of their lives. Republicans were more likely to say they would never leave the church.

There were no differences in their prayer lives, and three out of four Catholics in all three political groups said their marriages were approved by the church. Finally, Republicans were more likely to have attended Catholic elementary and high schools, with only small differences at the college level. Overall, they had the same mean number (eight) of years of Catholic school education, suggesting that the overall impact of formal Catholic education may have been limited.

In summary, the religious behavior and commitment of American Catholics as measured by parish membership, Mass attendance, importance of the church in their lives, level of commitment, prayer life, being in marriages approved by the church, and years of Catholic school education reveal few differences among Republicans, Democrats and Independents. On these measures, Catholics look pretty much alike, regardless of party differences.

Differences in attitudes about church teachings

Table 7 shows attitudes on a series of issues based on official church teachings, including a series of social justice questions that have their origins in the writings and teachings of Pope Leo XIII at the close of the 19th century. These teachings have gradually become an important part of the social teachings of the American Catholic church.

Part A shows that a majority of Republicans said church teachings opposing same sex marriage and abortion are very important to them. The differences between the Republicans and the Democrats and Independents are significant in both cases. The third item shows that a majority of Republicans said that the teaching authority of the Vatican was very important to them. Again, their response was significantly different from Democrats and Independents.

On the other hand, “having a celibate male clergy,” which continues to be a strongly held teaching of the Vatican, receives the lowest level of support across all three groups. Opposition to the death penalty, a teaching that has received support from the late Pope John Paul II and the American bishops, received its strongest support from Democrats, although the differences were not statistically significant. Overall, Republican Catholics support four of the five teachings more strongly than do Democrats or Independents.

Part B begins with two general questions. Republicans, Democrats and Independents agree helping the poor is very important to them. However, less than half of any party sees the church’s involvement in social justice issues as very important to them. We now compare these two general statements with five more specific statements derived from legislation that has regularly appeared before Congress in recent years.

At a glance

The five pieces of legislation at the bottom of Table 7 correspond to social justice issues that the U.S. bishops have long written on and lobbied for to the U.S. Congress. However, there is no reference in the survey question itself to the bishops or the church as lobbying about them. The responses reveal large, significant differences between the parties on all five issues. On every item, the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is significant, as is also the difference between the Republicans and the Independents. While a majority of all three groupings strongly support more government money to provide health care for poor children, among the Republicans it is a bare majority (52 percent), among the Independents a strong majority (71 percent), and the Democrats a large majority (81 percent).

Fifty percent of the Republicans also strongly support more government funds for the military, while only a third of the Democrats and Independents do so. Only a quarter of the Republicans strongly support reduced spending on nuclear weapons, compared to almost half the Democrats. Overall, while only a minority of American Catholics strongly supported “stiffer enforcement of the death penalty,” Republicans were almost twice as likely as Democrats to be so supportive. With regard to further cutbacks in welfare programs, less than one in five Catholics gave this any support, but again, among those who did, Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats (26 percent to 11 percent) to do so. In all five items, Independents were positioned between the two major parties, usually closer to the position held by Catholic Democrats.

In summary, on the five items involving government support, Democrats were significantly more likely than others to support government action for the poor, and to oppose more government spending for the military, especially on nuclear weapons. Comparison of the positions of American Catholics on these five items and the American Catholic bishops’ teachings on these five shows that the Democrats more nearly reflect the position of the bishops. At the same time, the Republican support for the teachings of the Vatican and their opposition to same sex marriage and abortion find them closely aligned with the bishops on these issues.

In the 2004 presidential election, post-election analysis makes clear that opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion carried more weight with the voters than did these other social teachings. This helps explain much of the Republican Catholic vote (James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Bob Shrum, “Reclaiming the Catholic Vote,” Democracy Corps, March 29; Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Nov. 30, 2004; The Washington Post, Aug. 10).

The following is a list of all of the tables and figures listed in our cover stories:
Table 1: Can you be a good Catholic without this?
Table 2: Attitudes on which Catholics highly committed to the church are distinctive
Table 3: Generational differences over time
Table 4: Demographic portrait of American Catholics, by political party
Table 5: Behavior and commitment of American Catholics, by party preference
Table 6: Attitudes about abortion and death penalty by generation
Table 7: Differences in attitudes about church teachings, by party preference
Table 8: Attitudes about parish life
Table 9: Would you be willing to accept in you parish ...
Table 10: Church as mediator by generation
Table 11: Acceptable parish accommodations to the priest shortage
Table 12: Possible responses to the priest shortage
Table 13: 'Cannot explain faith to others'
Table 14: Did you ever attend a Catholic school or college for any of your education?
Table 15: Catholic high school or college attendees have more education, income
Table 16: Catholic high school and attachment to the church
Table 17: Catholic high school and attitudes about parish life
Table 18: Appropriate role for parishioners with respect to parish finances
Figure 1: How important to you?
Figure 2: Attend Mass weekly or more
Figure 3: Changing behaviors and attitudes about attending Mass
Figure 4: Catholic laity should have the right to participate in deciding how parish income should be spent
Figure 5: Parishioners' role in parish finances should be ...

National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005

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