The Most Catholic Presidential Election Ever? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Most Catholic Presidential Election Ever?

By Lorena O'Neil


Because there are more than 75 million Catholics in the U.S., and in two years, quite a few could be running for president.

Here’s a list for you:

Democrats Andrew Cuomo, Joe Biden and Martin O’Malley; Republicans Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush.

What do they all have in common? Their names have been raised as potential candidates for the 2016 U.S. presidential election. What else do they have in common? They are all Catholic.

That is quite the list, considering we’ve had only one Catholic president before—John F. Kennedy—and one Catholic vice president (hey, Joe Biden). Is it something in the (holy) water?

“It epitomizes the reality that Catholics have come to the forefront of American political life,” says Christopher Hale, who helped lead Catholic outreach for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. “This would have been unimaginable 60 years ago. There’s a really good chance that one of the nominees from a major party will be a Roman Catholic. That expresses something that’s really shifted about American politics.”

Catholic tradition’s interaction with American politics is often not a comfortable fit…

— Molly Worthen, American religion historian, UNC-Chapel Hill

Catholics are often widely discussed during presidential elections, particularly because the Catholic vote has mirrored the popular vote since 1972. They are commonly referred to as a major swing-voting group, and in recent years they have made up about a quarter of the electorate.

”I’ve always considered Catholic outreach pretty substantial and important,” says Burns Strider, who worked as senior adviser and director of faith and values outreach to Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election. “I think Pope Francis has raised interest and awareness in lots of things, including electoral politics, just because he’s popular.”

Hale agrees. “He’s put a very public definition on what it means to be a Catholic. Catholic politicians are going to be compared now with the politics of Pope Francis.”

And, with Pope Francis being the quintessential example of a Catholic, his views are not restricted by partisan boundaries. “He’s not speaking as a liberal or a conservative,” says Strider.

“What’s so interesting to me about Catholic tradition and how it’s interacting with American politics is that it’s often not a comfortable fit,” says Molly Worthen, an American religion historian and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “A devout Catholic who follows every teaching of the Catholic magisterium is going to find himself or herself uncomfortable with either the Republican or Democratic party.”

What this means is Pope Francis’ and the Catholic Church’s stances on cultural issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom tend to align with a more conservative Republican viewpoint. Liberal Democrats have a lot in common with Catholics when it comes to discussions surrounding income inequality, immigration and climate change.

They all have different ideas on the role of faith in public service.

These variances in Catholicism show that the “Catholic vote” is quite complex and nuanced. The swing vote isn’t really a single vote at all; it is many nonpartisan votes.

A Pew 2012 study of the Catholic vote reports that white Catholic conservatives vote heavily Republican, while white Catholic liberals, Hispanics and other minority Catholics vote heavily Democratic. The already highly sought-after Hispanic vote has a direct impact on the Catholic vote, as well, as Hispanics grow in number in the United States. And while the Hispanic Catholic voting bloc is also very nuanced, it tends to skew left.

Worthen adds that many of the Catholic candidates potentially running in 2016 have different points of emphasis and varied ways of balancing the teaching of Catholicism with the norms of American politics. “They also have different ideas on the role of faith in public service,” she says. She points to Biden, who has made his personal Catholic views on abortion clear but says his job is to uphold the law. This differs from Rubio, who has made impassioned pro-life speeches saying he refuses to leave his faith behind when entering the public arena.

What does this all mean for promising candidates like Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz, who are not Catholic? With so many Catholic options in the primaries, will pious Catholics still cast votes their way?

“Absolutely,” says Worthen. Hale and Strider concur. Of course we don’t vote solely on the basis of our faith; our values are what shape our voting habits, much more so than simple dogma. 

”I would think a socially progressive Catholic would say that Hillary Clinton may be a Methodist but her proposals for extending government care to the poor and suffering are Catholic proposals,” says Worthen. “Her views are more consistent with Catholic teachings than Paul Ryan’s budget.” And on the opposing side, many Catholics see a small government and libertarian approach as more consistent with the Bible. They fear a socialist government expansion will threaten the authority of the Bible. “That’s what’s going on now in this debate with the Affordable Care Act and Hobby Lobby,” says Worthen. ”That’s what they would say.”

If the ballots are filled with Catholic candidates in 2016, one of two things could happen: Either the campaigns will be cleaner than they’ve been in the past or D.C.’s confession booths will have lines stretching around the corner.

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