“Moral values” issues take back seat
Oct. 23 2008
WASHINGTON-There’s been a lot of talk about the women’s vote, the youth vote and the working-class vote in this election cycle.
But there’s also a Catholic vote, and it’s driven more by economic concerns than social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, according to a panel of experts assembled Wednesday evening at the Catholic University of America.
“Tell me who wins the Catholic vote and I will tell you who will be the next president,” said panelist John White, a politics professor at the Washington-based institution.
In six of the last seven presidential elections, White said, Catholics have voted for the winner. Four years ago, 52 percent of Catholic voters supported Republican President George W. Bush.
Now, most are leaning toward Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a non-partisan research group.
Pew researcher Gregory Smith, who sat on the panel, said Catholics this year are most concerned about the same issues as the overall electorate: the economy, energy, education, the environment, health care and terrorism.
Each of these areas is more important to Catholic voters than so-called “moral values” issues such as abortion, according to the Pew findings.
“It looks as if abortion will be a relatively unimportant issue this election,” Smith said.
Less than a quarter of Catholic registered voters surveyed by Pew both oppose abortion and see it as a top political concern.
While church-going Catholics were twice as likely as non-church-going Catholics to say that abortion is important to them, even they ranked the issue as a low political priority.
In addition, fewer than one in five Catholic registered voters identified same-sex marriage as a key issue in the forthcoming election.
The survey dealt only with non-Hispanic white Catholic registered voters. Smith said Hispanic and non-white Catholics form an influential and growing voter bloc, but that focusing on non-Hispanic white Catholics allowed Pew researchers to “disentangle” religion from other factors such as race and ethnicity.
Smith said he found the survey’s results “striking given the great deal of media attention” to abortion as a mobilizing issue for Christian voters.
But William D’Antonio, a University of Connecticut emeritus professor who participated in the event, said support or opposition to abortion rights is more of a political issue than a religious one.
D’Antonio said Catholic members of Congress have voted along party lines on abortion rights since the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan made opposition to abortion a cornerstone of the Republican Party.
In 1979, Catholic Republican senators voted in favor of abortion rights 20 per cent of the time, while Catholic Democratic senators did so 45 per cent of the time, according to D’Antonio’s research.
By 2005, he said, Democratic Catholics in the Senate were voting “pro-choice” almost 90 percent of the time; their Republican counterparts were almost never doing so.
“There is a Catholic vote,” D’Antonio said, “but it’s trumped by party ideology.”
In Connecticut, political allegiances have long outstripped religious beliefs, D’Antonio said after the university event. Although roughly 32 percent of Connecticut residents self-identify as Catholic, according to a 2001 City University of New York study, the state has a long history of voting for pro-abortion-rights Democrats for Congress and the White House.
An influential Connecticut Catholic, the late Democratic Party chairman John Bailey, was a key supporter of John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic president.
During his election campaign, Kennedy famously promised voters that, as president, he wouldn’t take his marching orders from Rome.
In politics, at least, D’Antonio said Connecticut Catholics largely agree with Kennedy.
“They haven’t been listening to their bishops for years,” D’Antonio said.