COMMENTARY: Pundits ignore the power of Catholic voters

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. His home page on the World Wide Web is at Or contact him via e-mail at agreel(AT)

(UNDATED) According to a study recently commissioned by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, there is a large group of Americans who favor Bill Clinton by 29 percentage points in the upcoming presidential race over presumptive Republican nominee Bob Dole.

Members of this same group are 14 percentage points more likely than the general population to vote for a Democratic congressional candidate and 12 percentage points less likely to describe themselves as conservative.

They are seven percentage points more likely to approve of gay marriages. And four in five advocate birth control education courses for teenagers.

Who are these voters? Catholics, of course. Yet the potential power of this liberal voting bloc was barely mentioned in media reports on the survey. Instead, the news that came out of the Pew survey was that the conservatism of evangelical Protestants is the most striking fact of American political life today.

All the relevant statistics about Catholics were contained in the Pew survey. And virtually the same findings also appear in a recent Wall Street Journal poll, which also found that few Catholic voters were dismayed by the President recent veto of a bill banning late-term abortions.

Why does no one notice the liberal political orientation of Catholics?

I can think of only one answer _ bigotry. Stereotypes about Catholics are so strong that they cover up the obvious truth.

For at least two decades, conventional wisdom on the right and the left has held that Catholics are by definition conservatives. Pat Buchanan casts himself as a good Catholic, the reasoning goes. So every good Catholic must be like him.

The religious right has convinced itself and many others that all Catholics will join up in common cause because of the abortion issue. They may be right about conservative Catholics. But what about all those liberals?

Even the sharpest political analysts and operatives do not see the statistical evidence that has been clear for years: Catholics comprise one-fourth of the nation’s population and are the largest liberal political force in the country.

Still, the reality of the Catholic vote doesn’t seem to register on the radar screens of Republican and Democratic party leaders.

One reason why people misread the Catholic vote is that they figure if church leaders make political pronouncements, the people in the pews will follow like good little robots. Nothing could be further from the truth.

New York’s Cardinal John J. O’Connor is a high-profile conservative. But how many Catholic votes can Cardinal O’Connor _ or any cardinal _ deliver? The current American cardinalate cannot deliver a crowd of starving vampires to a blood bank.

Yet the belief that Catholics vote the way their leaders tell them to vote _ and even think the way their leaders tell them to think _ is apparently indelible in American culture. Some years ago a survey by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now known as The National Conference) revealed that a quarter of Americans believed both of these stereotypes.

Those who held such erroneous opinions, according to the survey, were disproportionately college-educated, from the northeast, and described themselves as “liberals” _ the very people who dominate the media and consider themselves the opinion-makers of America.

Such stereotypes don’t hurt many Catholics. Indeed, most Catholics could care less. But they do harm both political parties. Democrats, especially, have held a wildly inaccurate picture of American political geography as it exists between the Berkeley Hills and the Beltway, between Beverly Hills and Manhattan Island.

Why, then, do so many Catholics remain Democrats? The answer would be obvious, even to those who believe Pat Buchanan is the typical Irish Catholic: Catholics tend to have much stronger communal orientations and hence have much more sympathy for people who need help.

But it does no good to tell that to the media folk or to the political experts whose opinions they seek. They simply don’t get it. They probably never will.


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