This series seeks to illuminate the issues of an election year by engaging the US bishops’ document Faithful Citizenship, in a wide range of ways. Rather than take on a specific issue in this first entry, I want to step back and ask a few broader questions about the intersection of citizenship and religious identification.

The role of “Catholic voters” in elections has become visible because, as a bloc, Catholics appear to be a “swing” group. As Pew notes, Catholics have narrowly supported the popular vote winner in the last three presidential contests. On the other hand, Catholics are not flocking to Rick Santorum in the Republican primary, despite the extent to which Santorum would appear to be a very powerful candidate for resonating with conservative Catholic tendencies. Yet in the swing states that have voted so far, Romney wins Catholics, and by larger margins than his edge in the overall electorate.

The difficulty here in speaking about “the Catholic vote” require us to attend to the demographic complexity of American Catholics. The first and most obvious fact is that more and more American Catholics are Latino/a. White Catholics, Pew reports, only swung 4 points to Obama from Kerry (and Obama still lost them as a group), whereas Obama gained 14 points over Kerry among Latinos, netting a 7 point overall Catholic gain. (Note: the same trend is seen in the most recent Obama/Romney match-ups. ) Secondly, non-Latino Catholics tend to be slightly wealthier and more educated than the population as a whole… and these kinds of underlying demographics differences tend to favor conservative candidates (slightly). It would be interesting for a social scientist to see if, controlling for education and income, white Catholics were any different from the overall electorate. Thirdly, the really dramatic differences in Catholic views tend to appear when you sort Catholics by weekly church attendance. Again, Pew’s 2008 portrait suggests that church-attending Catholics are considerably more likely to endorse magisterial views on contested issues, such as gay marriage and abortion (but also interestingly enough, the death penalty). However, at least in 2008, that did not translate into support for universal health care, a finding likely pairable with the much weaker support for federal government activity. Weekly attenders support smaller government and fewer services 66-25, whereas less-than-weekly attenders split 45-44.  But even here, it is noteworthy that weekly attenders are disproportionately older as a group than Catholics as a whole, so it is not clear whether, if weekly attenders actually mirrors the overall Catholic population, one would see the same trends.

I cite these complexities because these are the realities into which any conversation about “faithful citizenship” must enter. It is very tempting to conclude from the above data that Catholics do not really vote as Catholics – they vote as Latinos, or as American church-going Christians (or as church non-attenders), etc. How do we account for this inability of “Catholic” to mean something in determining voting behavior? It seems to me that this is an important underlying consideration, which should be engaged before we can move on to considering different issues. I want to offer two different explanations, with some reference to the Faithful Citizenship document. I frankly don’t know which of these is correct, or even quite how one could determine an answer. But perhaps the explanations will engender comments, and certainly it will help clarify the grounds of the overall conversation.

The first explanation is that the seven “areas” identified in FC cut in contrary political directions on the current landscape. As defined in the FC bulletin insert, four seem to cut in a Democratic direction, while three cut in a Republican direction. Sure, it could be argued that “dignity of workers” or “option for the poor” should not belong to Democrats – but considering simply the rhetoric of the parties, there seems little doubt that workers, the poor, and the environment are more prominent considerations for Democrats, just as family and the dignity of the person are more prominent among Republicans. The document makes much of the need for “prudential judgment,” and so Catholics may be put in a difficult position. They may support all seven areas, but there is not a clear-cut candidate or party whose positions closely align with all seven. Therefore, one must “weigh” the areas, and different voters will arrive at different weighings. The only way to test this hypothesis would be to see if a candidate emerged who more obviously represented the full spectrum of areas, and whether that candidate would in fact be identified as such. A truly compassionate, environmentally concerned Republican (perhaps one who was more critical of large corporate interests), or a pro-life Democrat could test this.

The second explanation is a bit more complicated. It assumes that the underlying problem is not the different “areas,” but rather that the prudential judgment tends to be made in terms of self-interest instead of in terms of the common good. The bulletin insert presumes, but does not highlight, the fact that “the common good” is meant to be the criterion for all Catholic voting:  “All citizens, therefore, should be mindful of the right and also the duty to use their free vote to further the common good” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 75).  But the demographic divisions above suggest that American Catholics may be more swayed to vote for the candidate who is perceived to be more in line with their demographic and class interests. I do not intend here to arbitrate specific policies that would or would not advance “the common good.” I am simply wondering about the intentionality which drives acts of citizenship. Do Catholics vote like “everyone else” (understood in terms of demographics) simply because they follow the pattern of voting in ways that prioritize self-interest? If so, an underlying challenge is shifting the approach to civic engagement, with a clearer understanding of what actually contributes to the common good.