August 28, 2020

Editorial

When Catholics vote

The Republican and Democrat conventions are over, even though they were far different from past political conventions. It appears that, from now until Nov. 3, we’re in for an unpleasant campaign because our country is, unfortunately, bitterly divided.

For the fourth time in our history, a Catholic has been nominated for president. Does that mean that most Catholics will vote for Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump? Should they?

It seems strange now, but there was a time when secular periodicals wrote about “the Catholic vote,” which they sometimes labelled “the swing vote.” Catholic periodicals, though, denied that Catholics voted alike. A look at the history of Catholics’ votes shows that that was not always true.

When our ancestors first arrived in the United States, they almost invariably became Democrats because that party helped them get settled, finding jobs for them, and picking up tabs for doctor bills, weddings and funerals. The Democrat Party was the party of the working man, and Catholic immigrants were definitely workers. Irish Catholic Democrat machines dominated politics in Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Kansas City and St. Louis, and that continued for more than half of the 20th century.

So, it wasn’t a big surprise that Catholics supported Alfred E. Smith when he ran for president in 1928 against Herbert Hoover. What was surprising was the huge amount of anti-Catholicism that met Smith’s nomination. Many non-Catholics actually believed the rumor that Pope Pius XI was sequestered in New York, waiting for Smith’s victory so he could take up residence in the White House. Even though Smith won 80% of the Catholic vote, it wasn’t nearly enough for him to win. Hoover won in a landslide.

After World War II, and after the G.I. Bill made it possible for more Catholics to attend college and join the middle class, the Catholic vote shifted. Dwight Eisenhower was the first Republican president to get a majority of the Catholic vote, but just barely. But when Democrat John F. Kennedy, the second Catholic to head a ticket, ran in 1960, an estimated 82% of Catholics voted for him.

Lyndon Johnson got about 79% of the Catholic vote, but after that the Catholic vote was nearly identical to the vote of all Americans, which is why it was considered the swing vote. Republican Richard Nixon won the Catholic vote in both of his elections, and Republican Ronald Reagan received 61% of the Catholic vote in 1984.

That was the most Catholic votes any Republican received. After that, the Catholic vote went to Democrats Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama, but it swung back to Republican Donald Trump in 2016. He won the Catholic vote with 52%.

Most Catholics in U.S. history, therefore, have supported the Democrat candidate. Only four times have they helped elect a Republican: Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Trump.

John Kerry, a Democrat, was the third Catholic to head a ticket, in 2004. This time, Catholics did not swarm to him as they did for Smith and Kennedy. Estimates for the percentage of Catholics who voted for him range from 47% to 52%. Of course, he lost to George W. Bush.

Unlike earlier in our history, therefore, just being a Catholic doesn’t assure a candidate of the Catholic vote. Catholics today tend to vote pretty much as all other Americans do.

It should go without saying that the Catholic Church doesn’t tell Catholics how they should vote. It encourages Catholics to learn what the issues are, to judge which candidate is best suited for the job in light of their well-formed consciences, and to vote accordingly. This should be the responsibility of every citizen.

We know that neither political party agrees with everything the Catholic Church teaches. Therefore, it’s up to each one of us to decide for whom to vote. As in the lead up to other presidential elections, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is asking parishioners to examine “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.” The document has been offered as a guide to Catholic voters every presidential election year since 1976. The text of “Faithful Citizenship” can be downloaded as a free PDF from USCCB.org, or it can be purchased by going to Store.USCCB.org. It is also available in Spanish.

Unlike earlier in our nation’s history, the fact that Joe Biden is a Catholic will not guarantee his receiving most of the Catholic vote. On the other hand, our country has come a long way since people believed that the pope is just waiting to move into the White House. Kennedy, the only Catholic to win the election, showed that to be untrue.

—John F. Fink

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