Posted by Jay Livingston
People who write op-eds sometimes attribute their own opinions and ideas not to themselves but to “the public” or “America.” “The public seems to be angry about values,” wrote David Brooks in 2010, though as I pointed out in this post, surveys at the time showed that values ranked low among the issues the public was concerned about. In January, 2016, during primary season, Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat was projecting his own feeling about “decadence” onto supporters of Trump and Bernie Sanders (here) .
Thomas Groome, who came to the US from Ireland in 1972, has a similar intuition about US Catholics and why they are no longer the loyal Democrats they once were. In a Times op-ed (here) he writes:
|This was due at least in part to the shift by many American Catholic bishops from emphasizing social issues (peace, the economy) to engaging in the culture wars (abortion, gay marriage). Along the way, many Catholics came to view the Democrats as unconditionally supporting abortion.|
The logic of the argument is this:
- When bishops emphasized Church’s position favoring change on social issues, Catholics sided with Democrats because the Democrats too emphasized social issues.
- When bishops emphasized the Church’s position against abortion, Catholics sided with Republicans because the Republicans opposed abortion.
This argument assumes that anti-abortion sentiment is more widespread among Catholics, regardless of whether the bishops were responsible for it. But the GSS and other surveys show little difference between Protestants and Catholics on this issue.
What’s significant is not that church doctrine these days has so little sway in the political views of US Catholics. We are long past the time when anyone thought that Catholic politicians would be “taking orders from the Pope.” So it’s not surprising that Catholic voters are not taking orders from the bishops. More interesting is that religious identity has become so divorced from political identity. In 1960, Kennedy got 78% of the Catholic vote. Forty-four years later, Catholics preferred the WASP George W. Bush over Catholic John Kerry 52-47. (And if you factor out Hispanics, among White Catholics, Kerry lost by an even larger margin – 56-43.)
From Kennedy 78% to Kerry 43% is a big drop. But it’s unlikely that the bishops or even abortion had much to do with it.