Catholics and US Politics after the 2016 Elections

Understanding the "Swing Vote"

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Marie Gayte, Blandine Chelini-Pont, Mark J. Rozell
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , November
     226 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As Mark Rozell notes in the introductory chapter to this important and timely book, while Catholics comprise about one-fifth of the US population and about one-fourth of the US voting population, they cannot be considered a monolithic voting bloc. US Catholics are diverse in terms of theology, racial/ethnic identification, religious identification (traditionalist v. nominal/cultural Catholics), and geographic region (affected by partisan, educational, economic, and other demographic factors). 

Two trends, though, have emerged. First, the Catholic vote, which helped constitute the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition from the 1930s to 1970, now—post-1970—swings, or divides, between Republican and Democratic platforms. Conservative Catholics focus on life issues (opposing abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, stem cell and cloning research, and euthanasia) and tend to support war as well as traditionalist authorities (such as resisting women’s ordination and priestly marriage) (6). Liberal Catholics emphasize social and economic justice issues (e.g., restorative justice v. the death penalty, immigrant rights, healthcare reform, climate change), and tend to oppose both war (including US military imperialism abroad) as well as traditionalist authorities (endorsing women’s ordination and priestly marriage) (6-7). Thus Catholic voters “do not fit comfortably within one political party” (7). Moreover, there is no unified political movement or partisan leaning among either conservative or liberal Catholics. Second, the Catholic vote in presidential elections usually accords or aligns with the national popular vote. The 2016 US presidential election, by some measures, upended this latter trend: Democrat Hillary Clinton resoundingly won the national popular vote by nearly three million votes, but Republican Donald J. Trump won 52% of the overall Catholic vote (or 45% according to the American National Election Study issued in March 2017; see 215-16)—and 81% of the white Evangelical vote. This mattered more in contested states with large Catholic populations (e.g., Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin) that determined the election’s outcome in the Electoral College (12-13, 87, 136-37, 141): “In sum, although US Catholics generally are not a distinctive voting bloc, the 2016 presidential election proves that the swing vote component of that group matters in close elections” (14). 

This book examines these potent and ongoing political trends in three parts. Part 1 explores the history and ideology of the often-sidelined, but resurgent, Catholic Left in the 2000s under Barack Obama (chapter 2), and the post-WW II rise of the Catholic Right prior to its fusion with and “partial catholization” of the Religious Right, especially under George W. Bush (chapter 3). This part also demythologizes the supposed unanimity in the Religious Right by attending to the at-times fragile and fractured but key political coalitions rather than theological alliances between conservative Catholics and Evangelicals (chapter 4). Indeed, conservative Catholics split their opinions about Trump, on the one hand denouncing his white Christian nativist policies, and on the other hand accepting the possibility of serving as Trump’s advisers (57, 72-75). 

Part 2 examines US Catholic bishops (chapter 5) and the Vatican (chapter 6) as less influential, but still controversial and occasionally polarizing, political actors and factors in US politics and elections since Vatican II. Pope Francis’s recent call for US bishops to rebalance their priority issues for public engagement, supported by his appointment of new cardinals and bishops who advocate for more social justice concerns, may shift this influence (95-96). Taking the 2016 election as a case study of this so-called Francis effect, while some US bishops openly criticized Trump’s proposed immigration and other isolationist policies, other US bishops, known for their political advocacy against Obama, now surprisingly recommended either abstaining from voting or expressed reluctance about giving their parishioners political advice (96-97). Nonetheless, since the election, many of these same US bishops have openly resisted Trump’s policies, especially with regard to immigration (122-23), perhaps due to the US history of anti-Catholic immigration attitudes and policies, from both Europe and the Global South.

Finally, Part 3 attends to other salient factors impacting Catholic voters in this most recent presidential election: the ineffective role of the Supreme Court (even with majority Catholic appointments) in fostering conservative Catholic concerns about religious liberty (chapter 7); the slight but not significant effect of the Catholic identity of Democratic vice-presidential candidates on Catholic voting trends and on Evangelical countermobilization against such candidates (chapter 9); high-profile issues such as homeland security, immigration, and the economy (chapter 10); and voter geographic concentrations, registration rates, and turnouts, particularly among the US Catholic Latin@ community (chapter 8). 

Highlighting racial/ethnic diversity and other demographic trends among Catholic voters shows that, in the 2016 election, 60% of white Catholics voted for Trump while about two-thirds (67%) of Latinx Catholics voted for Clinton (8, 34; see also chapter 8). However, the third part of the book in particular could have benefited tremendously by extending this nuanced analysis to further assess the much discussed intersections of religion, race, gender, class, and voting in the 2016 election. Disaggregating the voting turnouts and results among other Catholic groups (such as Asian American and African American Catholics, especially with respect to women and the working class) would help us understand these groups’ responses to an increasing politics of hate in the US (as manifested in racism, sexism, elitism, xenophobia, exceptionalism, and so forth), as well as evaluate the claim that racial/ethnic identity, and not religion, drives these particular groups’ voting trends (162, 165).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rosemary P. Carbine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Whitter College.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marie Gayte is Associate Professor of U.S. History at Toulon University, France.

Blandine Chelini-Pont is Professor of Contemporary History at Aix-Marseille University, France.

Mark J. Rozell is Dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel Chair in Public Policy at George Mason University.


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