Whither the Catholic Voter?

In the past couple of election cycles, faithful Catholics came out in record-setting numbers for President Bush and other Republicans. Indeed, many have maintained that, in states such as Florida and Ohio, the Catholic vote has been pivotal in securing Republican victories.

Will faithful Catholics find themselves on the same side of the aisle this November 7? If trends over the past 10 years provide a glimpse, they probably won’t be pulling the lever for Democrats. But, there is speculation that faithful Catholic voters may have lost some enthusiasm for the Republican Party. Small deviations in strength and intensity of support can move election outcomes in today’s intensely partisan environment. The real issue come this Election Day, then, may be the extent to which church-attending, traditional Catholics abstain from voting and thereby help tip the scales for Democrats.

What a curious position for Republicans to be in. After all, under the Republican leadership of the White House and both houses of Congress, Catholics have had much to celebrate—two conservative Catholic justices appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, a national partial-birth abortion ban along with the enactment of several other far-reaching culture of life measures, and a serious rollback in public funding of abortions, overtly permissive birth control programs for teens, and embryo-destructive research that places us just steps from human cloning. With this record, how could Republicans lose Catholic voter strength?

Pundits have attributed faithful Catholic malaise to divisions over the war, an unclear message on stem cell research, and to a failed effort to enact a constitutional amendment to defend traditional marriage. After the Foley scandal, the bill of particulars has been expanded to include a general uneasiness with the GOP’s moral leadership.

If, on November 8, we awake to a shift in the congressional majority, exit polling will tell us whether these pundits were, in fact, prophets with a good sense of foreshadowing. But, as we approach November 7, candidates and commentators would do well to weigh one other factor—whether the Catholic voter will come to believe that a Republican majority, warts and all, produces more good and ensures considerably less cultural harm. Highlighting folly and failings is a natural human tendency, and discipline and reinforcement are needed to keep the human eye fixed on the positive.

In the current political environment, asking Catholic voters to place blind faith in the Republican Party—without a serious discussion of what makes the GOP unique or different from a cultural perspective—just won’t cut through the chatter these final weeks of the election season. Candidates who neglect to review culture of life achievements, to commit themselves to complete much more of the work that needs to be done, and, most importantly, to highlight the contrast between what we have today and what we could have in a Democrat-controlled Congress, may well fail to do so at their own peril.

Setting up the contrast isn’t so hard. There is the prospect of one or two more Supreme Court vacancies, and a partial birth abortion argument at the Court on the day after the elections. There is the fact that, in a Democrat-controlled Congress, oversight of the Bush Administration’s social policy agenda will be managed by Teddy Kennedy, Pat Leahy, Nancy Pelosi, John Conyers, and Barney Frank, who advance abortion-on-demand and other policies hostile to the culture of life.

This not only means potential witch hunts and fishing expeditions that cause executive branch officials to lose their focus, but also Congress wielding the power of the purse to starve the President’s pro-values social programs of their funding. And, there is the pile of proposed legislation (parental notification, for example) and the important list of unconfirmed nominees (including John Bolton for UN ambassador) awaiting the return of House and Senate members. The question is whether Republican candidates will make the point forcefully, and whether faithful Catholics will accept the message that, sometimes, the perfect is the enemy of the good.