Will Catholics swing back to the Democrats?

In 2004 Catholic voters did what not long before would have been considered political heresy: They supported a Republican for president over a Democrat, and an evangelical Protestant, no less, over the first Catholic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Moreover, Catholics’ preference for George W. Bush over John Kerry – 52 percent to 47 percent — was bigger in key electoral states, such as Florida and Ohio, which have large Catholic populations and provided the Electoral College margin for Bush’s victory.

To many, the 2004 election signaled a fundamental realignment in national politics. But Catholics later appeared to swing back to their traditional home in the Democratic Party. A Gallup Poll in June 2006 showed Catholics backing Democrats by an 11-point margin, reinforcing the view of Catholics as the ultimate “swing vote” among American religious blocs.


Experts said it was an ominous sign for the Grand Old Party. With the nation closely divided and control of Congress in the balance, pundits say the results of the November 2006 elections hinged on which way the Catholic vote swung. Here’s why Catholics were in the spotlight of attention:

  • With nearly 70 million baptized members, American Catholics are the largest denomination in the United States and the largest religious voting bloc, at 27 percent of the electorate in 2006.
  • Catholics vote at a higher rate than most other religious groups and a slightly higher rate (by 4 percentage points) than Protestants, according to the late William B. Prendergast, author of The Catholic Voter in American Politics: The Passing of the Democratic Monolith (Georgetown University Press, 1999).
  • Catholics are concentrated in the states with the most electoral votes – California, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, for example. That gives them political clout in Congress and in presidential politics.
  • American Catholicism is hardly monolithic, with the most significant fault line between the Europe-based ethnic communities that have long predominated – the Irish and Italians and Eastern Europeans, for example – and the Latinos, who are becoming the church’s leading demographic. But when both those groups move in the same direction — as experts say they may do in 2006, though often for different reasons – then the Catholic vote becomes especially powerful.

Why it matters

Control of the 110th Congress went a long way in determining the nation’s course on Iraq, judicial appointments, the war on terror, abortion rights and a host of other issues that have sharply divided the country. Moreover, control of Congress was a critical factor in the 2008 presidential campaign; if Democrats gained a majority in one or both houses, they would be able to counter some of Bush’s agenda while proposing their own. But they would also be held responsible by the public for their record. If the Republican party retains control of Congress, however, their track record would be held up for intense scrutiny. Either scenario would, and did, have an impact on the presidential fortunes of the eventual nominees in each party.

Issues to watch

Political experts say that Catholic voters have assimilated to the point that they tend to be governed in their voting preferences by the same pocketbook and security issues that affect all voters. But there are at least two hot-button issues that can have a larger impact on Catholic opinions than they would on other religious communities: immigration and abortion.


The debate over illegal immigration, which sparked massive street demonstrations in 2006, led by the predominantly Catholic Latino community, was a minefield for Republicans. The Republican party, which had set the legislative agenda in both houses of Congress, tended to focus on the law-and-order aspects of the issue. Catholic leaders have emphasized humanitarian concerns and offering illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens or guest workers.

With Latinos growth and predominance in the Catholic community, immigration was considered a linchpin issue for the Catholic vote.


Abortion is always a contentious political issue, but it is especially so for Catholic politicians who support the right to an abortion, which church leaders strongly oppose. The split between some Catholic pols and prelates became a showdown during the 2004 campaign, with several bishops threatening to withhold communion from Catholic elected officials who supported abortion rights. While the majority of the hierarchy did not take such a hard-line stance, the so-called “wafer war” did prompt developments that had an impact:

  • The Democratic Party, along with religious progressives, had consciously sought to burnish its image as a “faith-friendly” party. Democratic leaders hoped to show voters that Republicans did not have a monopoly on religious values, and they had gone so far as to back several Democratic candidates who favored limiting abortion rights. Most notable among these was Robert Casey Jr., who was mounting a strong challenge in the Pennsylvania Senate race to fellow Catholic and incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.
  • In February 2006, a coalition of 55 Catholic Democrats in the House, most of them abortion rights supporters, released a “Catholic Statement of Principles” that laid out how their faith informed their political choices. They argued that those choices conformed to Catholic social teachings.
  • On March 10, 2006, Catholic leaders responded with a “Statement on Responsibilities of Catholics in Public Life” that welcomed the Democrats’ document but set forth challenges to the Democrats’ positions on abortion and related moral issues. The bishops also referred the Catholic politicians to an earlier statement from the hierarchy, titled “Catholics in Political Life,” which the bishops adopted in June 2004 at the height of the Kerry-Bush campaign.
  • In June 2006 in Los Angeles, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, now retired as archbishop of Washington but then head of the task force, gave a report on the progress of the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians, the ad hoc bishops committee that produced the 2004 statement on “Catholics in Political Life.” Because the controversy continued after the 2004 vote, the task force continued to produce initiatives to try to make its views known with the public and politicians. At the bishops meeting, McCarrick detailed his views in subsequent reports and in this Catholic News Service story.
  • The South Dakota Legislature in February 2006 acted to make it a felony to perform an abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. (Read a Feb. 23, 2006, Washington Post article about the legislation). The only exception was to save the life of the mother. The law was the most far-reaching ban ever enacted by a state legislature and was designed as a direct challenge to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Some abortion opponents worried that the ban was so sweeping that a court challenge of it would result in the Supreme Court, even with two conservative Catholic justices on the bench, reiterating the right to an abortion?  The law itself was repealed later that year, but the court challenge jumbled the long-standing political dynamic of abortion politics and also focused public attention on the importance of judicial nominations.

Polls and surveys


Other resources

  • “Hispanic Churches in American Public Life: Summary of Findings”

    For Latino Catholic views, experts caution that it is important to separate out the opinions of Catholics of European ancestry from those of Latinos, a growing bloc that may account for one in five of the nation’s Catholic community. Latinos tend to be conservative on social issues, but more liberal than their Anglo counterparts on other ones. Read a 2003 report from the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life Project at the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, which examines the impact of religion on political and civic engagement in the Hispanic community and includes information on political party identification and religious beliefs.

  • “Catholics for Choice: Abortion”

    Read stories and analysis at Catholicvote.net, sponsored by Catholics for a Free Choice, an abortion rights group. Catholicvote.net is representative of a politically liberal wing of Catholicism.

    Contact: 202-986-6093.
  • “Catholic Voter Project: Parts I, II, & III”

    Read the three-part Catholic Voter Project, which explores the mind of the Catholic voters and their votes in America. It was commissioned by Crisis Magazine and done by QEV Analytics, a Washington polling group. Crisis Magazine is representative of a politically conservative wing of Catholicism.

    Contact: 202-986-6093.
  • “Catholic Politicians in the U.S.: Their Faith and Public Policy”

    View the proceedings of a Feb. 27, 2006, panel at Boston College. The panel was convened under the auspices of the college’s Church in the 21st Century Center program and featured Tim Russert, managing editor and moderator of Meet the Press and political analyst for NBC Nightly News and the Today show; James Carville, CNN political commentator and former senior political adviser to President Clinton; E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution; Edward W. Gillespie, founder and co-chairman of Quinn Gillespie & Associates and chairman of the 2004 Republican National Committee and Peggy Noonan, best-selling political author and contributing editor to The Wall Street Journal.

  • “Religion, Moral Values and the Democratic Party”

    See this transcript from May 22, 2006, event sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. White Catholics may be key for Democrats, according to William A. Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

  • Americans for Religious Liberty

    Americans for Religious Liberty is an interest group in Silver Spring, Md., that monitors issues of the separation of church and state. Albert J. Menendez, the ARL research director, has analyzed the religious makeup of each Congress since 1972. Contact Menendez

    Catholics have long been the largest denominational bloc, but Menendez’s tally lists 154 Catholics in the current Congress, an all-time high. Also, while Democrats still hold an 87-67 edge over Republicans among Catholic representatives, the GOP has been gaining in recent years. Whereas Catholic representatives, like voters, were once predominantly Democrats, today about one-quarter of Republican members are Catholic, compared with about one-third of Democrats. See a PDF file of the religious affiliations of the current Congress.

National sources

  • Clyde Wilcox

    Clyde Wilcox is professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He specializes in electoral behavior and public opinion and can comment on the Catholic vote, abortion, gun control, gay rights, church-state issues and other issues involving religion and politics. He wrote “Abortion, Gay Rights and Church-State Issues in the 2000 Campaign” for the book Religion and Liberal Democracy: Piety, Politics and Pluralism and he is the co-author of The Values Campaign? The Christian Right and the 2004 Elections.

  • Robert P. George

    Robert P. George is the McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University. He has written on natural law, marriage and family life, religious freedom, bioethics and public morality. Additionally, he’s served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the President’s Council on Bioethics.

  • Mary Segers

    Mary Segers is professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark campus. Her specialties include religion and politics. She co-wrote the book Faith-Based Initiatives and the Bush Administration: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

  • Michele Dillon

    Michele Dillon is associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She wrote “The American Abortion Debate: Culture War or Normal Discourse?” for the book The American Culture Wars: Current Contests and Future Prospects (University of Virginia Press, 1996). She is the author of Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith and Power.

  • James Matthew Wilson

    James Matthew Wilson is assistant professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He wrote the article “Blessed are the Poor: American Protestantism and Attitudes Toward Poverty and Welfare” for the Southeastern Political Review (1999) and the paper “Moral Visions and the New American Politics” for the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University (2003).

  • John C. Green

    John C. Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, specializing in religion and American politics. He also serves as interim university president, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron.

  • Thomas Reese

    The Rev. Thomas J. Reese is a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for Religion News Service. He writes and comments widely on Catholic culture and politics. He is the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church

  • Erik P. Goldschmidt

    Erik P. Goldschmidt is director of the Church in the 21st Century Initiative at Boston College. Its research includes the state of Catholic ministry in America.

  • William V. D’Antonio

    William V. D’Antonio is an associate researcher at The Catholic University of America and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. He is a leading analyst of the changing roles of Catholic laity in society and politics.

  • John DiIulio Jr.

    John DiIulio Jr. is a professor of politics, religion and civil society at the University of Pennsylvania and was the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. A frequent speaker and writer on faith-based social services, he is co-editor of What’s God Got to Do With the American Experiment? (Brookings, 2000).

    Contact: 215-898-7641.
  • David J. O’Brien

    David J. O’Brien is a professor of Catholic studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He has written and commented widely about Catholics and politics.

  • Michael Horan

    Michael Horan is a theologian at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who can relate Catholic beliefs to Catholic practice, particularly in the political realm. Horan believes hard-line tactics by bishops to deny communion to abortion rights politicians can backfire.

  • Mary Jo Weaver

    Mary Jo Weaver is an emeritus professor of religious studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She has written on American Catholics in the 20th century, with a focus on the conservative strain among American Catholics.

  • David Leege

    David Leege is an emeritus professor of political science at Notre Dame University and spends much of the year in Arizona. Leege is a leading expert on Catholic voting patterns.

  • John K. White

    John K. White is a political science professor and fellow at the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

  • Jim Towey

    Jim Towey is a Catholic who succeeded DiIulio as head of the White House’s faith-based program, serving as director until he left that post to become the president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., in July 2006. On Aug. 3, 2006, President Bush appointed Jay Hein, president of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research in Indianapolis, as Towey’s successor. He represented Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in legal matters in the United States for 12 years.

Political parties: Republicans

  • Republican National Committee

    The Republican party has made a strong push to draw Catholic voters. The Republican National Committee has a “Catholic Team” designed to recruit Catholics voters. The mission statement of the GOP Catholic Team says: “The Republican Party makes it possible for Catholics to uphold both the culture of life and social justice in a way that the Democrat platform does not.” The RNC point man for the Catholic Team is Martin Gillespie.

  • National Catholic Prayer Breakfast

    In 2004, political conservatives launched another Republican-backed initiative to attract Catholics: a National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, designed as an alternative to the traditional National Prayer Breakfast, which has a largely evangelical Protestant character. The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast became a premier event for Republican leaders, and President Bush addressed the gathering on April 7, 2006.

Political parties: Democrats

Democrats have tried to counter the Republican’s tactics in an effort to close the so-called “God gap,” an explanation given for the fact that religiously committed voters are more frequently aligned with the Republican Party.

  • Democratic National Committee

    The Democratic National Committee has tried to present the party as friendly to a range of faiths and has been planning a specific outreach to Catholic voters, a community the Democrats could once take for granted. In September 2006, former Democratic Party Chairman David Wilhelm launched an effort called Faithful Democrats, billed as “an online community of Christian Democrats.”

    Contact: 202-863-8110.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • David Hollenbach

    David Hollenbach is a professor of theology at Boston College as well as the University Chair in Human Rights and International Justice and director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice. He has written widely on issues related to Christian ethics, religious freedom, church-state relations and the role of religion in promoting the common good. He is the author of The Global Face of Public Faith: Politics, Human Rights and Christian Ethics.

  • Elizabeth McKeown

    Elizabeth McKeown is a professor of theology at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. McKeown focuses on American studies. She is co-editor of Public Voices: Catholics in the American Context (Orbis Books, 1999).

  • Thomas O’Hara

    The Rev. Thomas O’Hara is the elected provincial superior of the United States Province of Priests and Brothers of the Congregation of Holy Cross. He oversees the work and welfare of more than 500 priests, brothers and seminarians in the U.S. Province. He can comment on issues of Catholics and politics, especially in old-line Catholic communities in keystone states such as Pennsylvania.

  • Mary E. Bendyna

    Sister Mary E. Bendyna is executive director and senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She is an expert on the Catholic Church and religion and politics.

In the South

  • James Guth

    James Guth is a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. He has written widely on the emergence of Christian conservatives in the political arena.

  • Michael J. Perry

    Michael J. Perry is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University in Georgia and specializes in religious liberty issues and religious influences over politics. He is author of Religion, Politics and Nonestablishment, among others.

  • David Yamane

    David Yamane is a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University and expert on American Catholicism. He is the author of The Catholic Church in State Politics: Negotiating Prophetic Demands and Political Realities. Over the last few years, Yamane has shifted his attention to gun culture and studies the rise of armed citizens.

  • Penny Long Marler

    Penny Long Marler is a professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., with interests in the relationship between church and society and religious change. She has written about measuring growth in church attendance.

  • Gerard Wegemer

    Gerard Wegemer is a professor of literature at the University of Dallas and founding director of the Center for Thomas More Studies at the Catholic college. He is the author of several books on Thomas More, the 16th-century English statesman who was executed by Henry VIII for refusing to assent to his break with the papacy over Henry’s divorce. More has been cited by many as a role model for Catholics in public life. Wegemer’s books include Thomas More on Statesmanship (Catholic University of America Press, 1996) and Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage (Scepter Publishers, 1995). He has highlighted the lessons he believes contemporary Catholic public figures should draw from More.

  • John M. Bruce

    John M. Bruce is an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. He specializes in politics and religion.

In the Midwest

  • Charles E. Bouchard

    The Rev. Charles E. Bouchard, O.P., is a moral theologian and president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology, a Dominican graduate school in St. Louis.

    In an article in the Feb. 12, 2001, edition of the Jesuit weekly America, he called for Catholics to “abandon the all-or-nothing strategy” in the abortion debate in order to reduce abortions.

In the West

  • Gastón Espinosa

    Gastón Espinosa, assistant professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in California, specializes in Latino religion and politics.

  • Thomas P. Rausch

    The Rev. Thomas P. Rausch is a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A Catholic priest, Rausch is the author of Authority and Leadership in the Church: Past Directions and Future Possibilities.

  • Ted G. Jelen

    Ted G. Jelen is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has followed religion and politics, including the participation of the Catholic Church and the role abortion politics plays. He co-edited the books Abortion Politics in the United States: Studies in Public Opinion and The One, the Few and the Many: Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective. He also co-wrote the book Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion.

  • Mark A. Chaves

    Mark A. Chaves is professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is an expert on religious organizations in the United States and leads the National Congregations Study.

  • Gerard Heather

    Gerard Heather is a political science professor at San Francisco State University and an expert on religion and politics.

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