The electoral system in the United States (first-past-the-post with single member districts) generates a two party system. Sociologically speaking, this is not a great outcome. It leads to resilient party bonds almost like a form of tribal membership. In dichotomies, people tend to operate with strong in-group, out-group attitudes and behaviors. They favor their in-group, often to irrational extremes, and disfavor the out group strongly. The in-group is believed to be ideal—especially when it is compared to the evil incarnate out-group. In the age of cable news and social media this quasi-tribalism has developed a new wrinkle—fandom. People have begun to operate as if their party affiliation is the core of their personality and worldview.
For Catholics there is an additional hurdle. They are essentially politically “homeless” in this two party system. Both party platforms have major components which conflict with Church teachings and directives. It is argued that Democrats are often out of step in terms of life issues, with the exception of the death penalty, and Republicans are often inconsistent with issues regarding the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable—including the social safety net and the treatment of immigrants and refugees. Again arguably, there are many other inconsistencies. At the same time, each party is consistent with the Church on some issues as well.
Most Catholics in the U.S.—more than 8 in 10—enter the Church as infants. They acquire an awareness of the political system and partisanship in their tween and teen years—often taking cues from parents, other family, and peers. Some never choose to politically affiliate or switch affiliations at some point. So how does one come to be a Catholic Democrat or a Catholic Republican? Well, more often than not, Catholicism takes a back seat to party and people gravitate toward emphasizing the issues in which their party is consistent with the Church when the topic of religion comes up.
The U.S. bishops, in their election document Faithful Citizenship, explain, “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position [emphasis added]. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.” In short, when choosing who to affiliate with or vote for, Catholics should not affiliate with or vote for a party or candidate specifically because they hold a position inconsistent with Church teachings. However, they should vote for a candidate or party because they specifically do offer policies that are consistent with Church teachings.
In one sense, Catholics have actually become less partisan over time. In 1972, according the General Social Survey (GSS), about seven in ten Catholic adults identified either as a Democrat or as a Republican. This has declined over time and in 2016, only 58% identified with a party (23% don’t identify with a party but “lean” towards one and 19% are independents or support some “third” party). This shift occurred as fewer Catholics affiliated with the Democrats (54% in 1972 to 36% in 2016) and more with the Republicans (15% in 1972 to 22% in 2016).
Thus, today, 42% are “non-identifiers” with either major party. They’ve embraced their political homelessness, for now. Even without a party home one could still believe in an ideology—which is also an important component of American political culture. In 1974, according to the GSS, 24% of adult Catholics identified as a Left or Right “ideologue” (extremely liberal, liberal, conservative, or extremely conservative). In 2016, 32% claimed a liberal or conservative ideology. Most Catholics, 68% are either moderates (42%) or only “slightly” liberal (11%) or “slightly” conservative (15%). Once you combine ideology and partisanship together you get this distribution:
About one in ten Catholics are liberal Democrats (9.8%) and slightly fewer are conservative Republicans (8.2%). Most are unaffiliated and non-ideological (30.5%). The rest are some combination of party affiliation without ideology or ideology without affiliation, and then one last group where party affiliation and ideology are seemingly inconsistent. These Catholics “in the middle” are presumably those most open to policies and candidates that do not meet the rigid partisan and ideological positions of the two major political parties. They may be more able to find a space for their faith in their political discernment and choices.
Altogether 21% of Catholic adults have a partisan affiliation and a conservative or liberal ideology. As shown below, this is the same as adults without any religious affiliation (i.e., Nones) and similar to other non-Christians. However, one in four Christians who are not Catholic have a partisan affiliation and are ideological. Only the religiously unaffiliated are more likely than Catholics to be unaffiliated with a political party and without a conservative or liberal ideology.
Over time, the number of unaffiliated and non-ideological Catholics has grown. In the 1970s, 28% of Catholics were without party or ideology and this remained stable through the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2000s, this group increased its share to 33% of Catholics and has inched up another percentage point in the 2010s. A key difference in terms of religious practice is that those with partisan affiliations and ideologies are more likely than those without these to be in the pews at Mass regularly. About a third of the affiliated and ideological attends Mass weekly (another 24% attends monthly) compared to only 19% of the non-ideological and unaffiliated attending weekly (another 24% attends at least once a month).
Politically, issue-to-issue, there are not large differences between Catholic Republicans, Democrats and those unaffiliated with a party. Yet, there is a high-profile basket of issues—often those most likely to be in the news where sharp divisions, even polarization, emerges. Sometimes Democrats are out of step with the Church and at other times Republicans are.
For example, look below at the distribution of respondents, by party affiliation, for the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) question about abortion. Yes, Republicans respond differently than Democrats but not to the extremes seen in many other questions. Note that there are many Democrats who do not support abortion as a matter of personal choice (50%) and there are Republicans who do (29%). Many Catholics simply do not take the cues from their political parties on abortion as they do on some other big issues. They also often aren’t agreeable with what the Church teaches.
Data from the GSS, over time, show that Catholics, all U.S. adults, and every other conceivable sub-group that can be measured (including weekly Mass attending Catholics) have a divided opinion on abortion. It all comes down to circumstance more than political party or faith. A majority of Catholics do not support legal abortion for “any reason,” pregnancy without marriage, being unable to afford more children, or just not wanting more children. Majorities support legal abortion if the pregnancy is a result of a rape, that the woman’s health is seriously endangered, or there is a strong chance of birth defect with the child. This divide has been stable over time since the 1970s.
Also in the GSS, strong majorities of Catholics oppose assisted suicide for people who are tired of living and who are ready to die. They’ve consistently opposed this since the late 1970s. At the same time, majorities of Catholics have also supported and continue to support allowing for assisted suicide if a patient has a disease that can not be cured and has a desire to die. (...The only life issue showing significant change over time has been a rising opposition to the death penalty for convicted murders. Currently, 41% of Catholics oppose this compared 27% in 1988).
There is a greater divide among Catholics, by party, on an issue like gun control. Seventy-seven percent of Catholic Democrats support making it more difficult in the future for people to buy a gun. Thirty-seven percent of Republicans agree but a majority would like to keep the rules for gun buying the same (56%). Few, of any affiliation, would like to see it become easier to buy a gun in the future. Just as a note, the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship cites the importance of “supporting reasonable restrictions on access to assault weapons and handguns.”
There is undivided support among Catholics for increases in federal spending on dealing with crime (The USCCB also notes the importance of “effective responses to violent crime”). Seventy-two percent of Republicans support this as do 69% of Democrats, and 66% of those unaffiliated with a party. About a quarter of each group would like this funding kept the same. Few of any party affiliation would like to see this funding decreased.
What about immigration? Here too Catholics are not always fractured by party as some might assume. As shown below, majorities of Catholic Democrats, Republicans, and those unaffiliated with a political party favor unauthorized immigrants now living in the United States to remain and qualify for U.S. citizenship if they meet certain requirements (i.e., “like paying back taxes and fines, learning English, and passing background checks”). Indeed, one in four Republicans would like to make all unauthorized immigrants felons and then send them back to their country (along with 8% of Democrats and 13% of the politically unaffiliated). Yet, three in four Republicans would seek to allow them to remain under various scenarios. On the part of the USCCB they would like to see “comprehensive immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship, treats immigrant workers fairly, prevents the separation of families, maintains the integrity of our borders, respects the rule of law, and addresses the factors that compel people to leave their own countries.”
Support for the children brought by unauthorized immigrant parents to be allowed to stay is even more widespread. Seventy-three percent of Catholic Republicans support this as do 87% of Democrats and 81% of those without a party affiliation. Yet, there are some immigration questions with less consistency across party identifications. For example, 75% of Republicans oppose allowing Syrian refugees to come to the United States (6% favor this and 19% neither favor nor oppose). Democrats are no mirror image. Despite the Church’s call to support refugees only 33% of Catholic Democrats favor bringing Syrian refugees to the U.S. (32% oppose it and 35% neither support nor oppose this). The USCCB is clear in noting, “The Gospel mandate to ‘welcome the stranger’ requires Catholics to care for and stand with newcomers, authorized and unauthorized, including unaccompanied immigrant children, refugees and asylum-seekers, those unnecessarily detained, and victims of human trafficking.”
There is one immigration issue where political polarization is very clearly evident. Sixty percent of Catholic Republicans favor building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. By comparison, 65% of Democrats oppose this. As shown below, non-partisans have a divided opinion about the wall. Echoing a sentiment he has made numerous times, Pope Francis remarked to a general audience in February 2017 that “In the social and civil context as well, I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges.” The USCCB has advised, “The right and responsibility of nations to control their borders and to maintain the rule of law should be recognized but pursued in a just and humane manner.”
As one might expect there is also a divide on an issue like climate change but upon closer inspection there remains some common ground. This of course is an issue that Pope Francis has focused a lot of his attention on. The USCCB is clear as well, “Our Conference offers a distinctive call to seriously address global climate change.” Fewer than one in five Catholics of any partisan affiliation believe that rising global temperatures occur mostly through natural causes. Where a difference emerges is in just how much the human contribution to climate change is. Democrats are divided on whether it is mostly human activity (44%) or equally human activity and natural causes (40%). Republicans are more likely to believe there is some natural causes contributing along with human activity (60%) rather than humans being mostly responsible (21%). Regardless, whether Democrat or Republican there is common agreement that human activity is contributing to climate change. There is disagreement in how much. Those unaffiliated with a party have views similar to Democrats.
Oddly, perhaps the greatest polarization among Catholics, likely caused by partisanship, is related to issues of wealth and poverty—one area of policy and law that should be clear to any Catholic from the Gospel to the Catechism, to Faithful Citizenship. While previously noting the agreement among Catholics of different party affiliations regarding federal funding for dealing with crime, there is not the same shared point of view for federal funding for aid to the poor. Sixty-two percent of Democrats would like to see this increased compared to only 31% of Republicans and 34% of those unaffiliated with a party. Nearly half of these two latter groups would like this funding to stay at current levels. More than one in five Republicans would like to see this funding decreased (as do 10% of Democrats and 18% of those without a party affiliation).
Divides are also evident in responses to questions about government involvement in reducing income inequalities (note: there is broad and strong agreement among Catholics of all party affiliations for laws requiring employers to pay men and women the same amount for the same work). Democrats strongly favor, at 78%, increasing income taxes on people making over $1 million a year. While a majority of Republicans do as well (54%), many oppose (20%) or neither favor nor oppose (26%) this proposition. Those who are unaffiliated with a party closely mirror Democrats.
Finally on the economic front, a slight majority of Democrats favor the government trying to reduce the difference in incomes between the richest and poorest households (56%). Fewer Republicans (30%) and those unaffiliated with a party (40%) favor this method of reducing inequality. Sizeable numbers of all groups neither favor nor oppose this step and Republicans are most likely to oppose it (46%).
While there is some polarization—largely driven by partisanship—among U.S. Catholics, there is common ground as well. Perhaps more important, a sizeable number of Catholics aren’t rooting for either “team.” Looking back at the figures above, if you focus on the purple bars—representing those unaffiliated with a political party—you’ll notice that these Catholics are the most consistent with the Church’s positions on issues, with one important exception. Republicans are more consistent with the Church’s position on the legality of abortion than any other group. That’s not saying much when the total share of Republicans who are congruent is just 19%. However, 40% of those unaffiliated with a party believe abortion should be legal as a matter of personal choice, which is about as far from the position of the Church as one could get.
On other issues though, the “purple” non-partisan Catholics, as a majority, support: more gun control (57%), that unauthorized immigrants be allowed to remain and qualify for citizenship if requirements are met (63%), that unauthorized immigrant children who have lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years and graduated from high school should be allowed to live and work in the U.S. (81%), that aid to the poor should not be reduced (82%), that employers should be required to pay women the same amount as men for the same work (87%), and increasing taxes on people making over $1 million a year (72%). As a plurality this sub-group opposes building a wall on the border (43%), believes climate change is caused mostly by human activity (41%), and favors the government taking steps to reduce income inequality (40%). Neither Catholic Democrats nor Republicans are this consistent with the positions of the Church.
In recent elections, Catholics are the only major religious group that has switched the party it votes for over time. Protestants vote Republican in each election. Non-Christians and the religiously unaffiliated vote for Democrats each time. According to Exit Polls, in 2000, 2002, 2006, and 2008 Catholics voted in the majority for Democrats. In 2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016 Catholics voted for Republicans (2012 was a 50/50 split). I believe this is related to a metaphorical “drinking problem.” There is realistically only red and blue “Kool-Aid” on the table in our party system. Have Catholics, over time, been mixing these into something purple? Unfortunately, in any given election you have to choose one or the other (I’ll stay “politically sober” and stick with clear water). The key for the Church is to have Catholics choose, using their informed conscience, but to then not buy so strongly into the tribalism and fandom of partisanship as it exists today. Doing so could prevent Catholics from seeking common political ground that is more consistent with their common faith. That ground does exist in many of the figures shown above. Yet the issues where polarization is evident tend to burn more brightly at this time...
This post is a summary of what I presented at “Overcoming Polarization in a Divided Nation Through Catholic Social Thought” on June 4, 2018. This event was organized and hosted by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. For more about Catholic partisanship and voting check out Catholics and US Politics After the 2016 Elections: Understanding the Swing Vote (Eds. Marie Gayte, Blandine Chelini-Pont, and Mark J. Rozell. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). I wrote the chapter on “Catholics and the 2016 Elections.”
Inkblot image courtesy of Håkan Dahlström.