Survey finds some Catholics looking for a political home

Survey finds some Catholics looking for a political home


A new survey examining party affiliation and religious observance finds that Catholic support is about evenly split between the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in the upcoming election. Due to this almost even division, non-Hispanic Catholics are considered to be “up for grabs” in the 2008 election.


The survey was commissioned by the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College and conducted by Opinion Access Corp. of Long Island, New York, a prominent polling firm. It conducted a phone survey of 3,002 respondents about their political affiliation, their religious affiliation, and the level of their religious observance.


The survey broke down Mainline Protestants, Evangelical Protestants, and non-Hispanic Catholics into the three subgroups of traditionalists, centrists, and modernists.  Traditionalists were categorized as those who adhere to their historic beliefs of their faith and have high levels of religious observance and identification with sectarian religious movements. Modernists, in the survey’s reckoning, subscribe to “more heterodox religious beliefs,” are less religiously observant, are more likely to identify with ecumenical religious movements, and are more eager to include modern beliefs and practices. Centrists fall between traditionalists and modernists.


“Traditionalists, regardless of their particular religious tradition, are the most supportive of McCain, while modernists, regardless of religious tradition, are the most supportive of the Democratic candidate,” the survey found.


Beliefs uniting more than religious affiliation


Significant political divisions within churches were also uncovered by the survey. Summing up the results, Calvin College researchers found that, “partisan differences between traditionalist and modernist components within the same religious tradition tend to be greater than the political differences across the three major religious traditions overall.”


The researchers found that a new trend was appearing amongst religious voters. According to their report, “Religious beliefs and practices are beginning to replace religious affiliation as the primary religious basis of political cleavages. One’s religious tradition affiliation continues to shape political tendencies, but such tendencies are even more shaped by the specific kind of person one is religiously within that particular tradition.”


The survey categorized 5.3 percent of the respondents as traditionalist Catholic, a group that favors the Republicans over the Democrats with a 56 percent to 23 percent difference in 2008, compared to a 57-30 difference in 2004.


About 5.4 percent of survey respondents were centrist Catholics, who favored Democrats to Republicans by a 47-34 percent margin 2004. In 2008, centrist support for Democrats had eroded slightly with 41 percent favoring Democrats and 37 percent supporting the Republican Party.


About 4.9 percent of respondents are modernist Catholics, 51 percent of whom favored Democrats and 38 percent Republicans. Their party affiliation in 2008 changed to 59 percent Democrat and 20 percent Republican.


Hispanic vs. Non-Hispanic Catholics


Non-Hispanic Catholics, the survey says, “continue to remain the largest religious tradition most evenly divided in their partisan inclinations and most likely to be ‘up for grabs’ in the 2008 presidential election.”


Overall, 38 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics are Republicans and 41 percent are Democrats.


 Latino Protestants, Latino Catholics, and Black Protestants were each placed in a separate category, according to the survey, because each ethnic group is politically distinct and because most congregations in the U.S. are ethnically or racially homogeneous.


Catholic Latinos, 6.8 percent of survey respondents, overwhelmingly identify as Democratic, 57 percent to 15 percent. Latino Catholics are far more likely to support Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama and are somewhat less favorable to Obama in a matchup with McCain.


“Traditionalist Catholics are more supportive of McCain in 2008 than they were of Bush in 2004, but the reverse is true with regard to centrist and modernist Catholics,” the survey report states. “Latinos, regardless of whether they are Protestant or Catholic, are much more supportive of the Democratic candidate in 2008 than they were of Kerry in 2004.”


Where Catholics fall on the issues


The survey also polled Catholics about their stands on several prominent issues in American politics. Perhaps surprisingly, the survey discovered that a majority of self-described Catholic respondents clearly support pro-abortion stands, and on the issue of homosexual marriage they are evenly split.


When asked to consider the statement “abortion should be legal and solely up to the woman to decide,” 51 percent of non-Hispanic self-described Catholics agreed. Traditionalist Catholics disagreed with the statement 71 to 21 percent, centrist Catholics agreed 54 to 40 percent, and modernist Catholics agreed 80-16 percent. About 47 percent of Latino Catholics agreed with the statement, while only 35 percent disagreed.


Concerning homosexual marriage, Latino Catholics are split 42 percent in favor to 41 percent against, judging by their response to the survey statement that “gays and lesbians should be permitted to marry legally.”  Non-Hispanic Catholics are also closely split, 45 percent disagreeing while 43 percent agree. About 68 percent of traditionalist Catholics disagree with the statement, while centrist Catholics are evenly split and 65 percent of modernist Catholics agree.


Catholics tended to disagree with the statement that “free trade is good for the economy even if it means the loss of some U.S. jobs.” A majority of non-Hispanic Catholics agreed with that strict environmental regulation is necessary even if job cuts or higher prices result. Sixty seven percent of non-Hispanic Catholics and 55 percent of Latino Catholics agreed that local communities should be allowed to post the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols if the majority agrees.


Sixty six percent of non-Hispanic Catholics disagreed with the statement that clergy should be allowed to endorse candidates during worship services, while 55 percent of Hispanic Catholics disagreed.


By a margin of 52-42 percent, non-Hispanic Catholics did not agree that the U.S. rightly took action against Iraq. Traditionalist Catholics support the action by 56-36 percent, centrist Catholics oppose it by 54-34 percent, and modernist Catholics oppose it 68-29 percent. Latino Catholics oppose the Iraq action by a margin of 69-25.

Presidential predictions


In a presidential race between presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain and presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama, non-Hispanic Catholics favor McCain by a 43-35 margin. Hispanic Catholics favor Obama, but less fervently than they backed Hillary Clinton (73% in favor). The survey projects Obama to win 49 percent of Catholic Latinos and McCain to win 21 percent, with the rest being undecided.


Dr. Corwin Smidt, Director of The Henry Institute at Calvin College, told CNA that the very existence of a “Catholic vote” is a debated topic because Catholics are so divided. However, he himself thinks there is a Catholic vote to the extent that the Catholic faith seems to undergird particular positions. He said one could argue that there is a Catholic vote, but it moves Catholics in different directions. Traditionalists, he said, are moved by abortion, while centrists and modernists are more concerned with “social justice.” Both reflect facets of Catholic teaching.


Professor Smidt said he was surprised that non-Hispanic Catholics were so evenly divided between traditionalists, centrists, and modernists. “No one group dominates,” he said. Because Catholics do not fit neatly into one camp or another, he believes the Catholic vote will be “heavily contested” in the 2008 election.


Regarding the Latino vote, Dr. Smidt said Hispanic Catholics were likely to be strongly in favor of Obama and would play an important role in Sunbelt states. However, Catholic Hispanics’ levels of voter eligibility and levels of turnout would be a factor in the magnitude of their influence.

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