On Catholics and Democrats

On Catholics and Democrats

E.J. Dionne

The story is told of Mrs. O’Reilly being taken to the polls on Election Day by her son. She has always voted Democratic. Her son, a member of the upper middle class, votes for lots of Republicans. He turns to his
mother and asks her how she plans to cast her ballot.

“Straight Democratic,” she says, predictably.

“You know, mother,” the exasperated son replies, “if Jesus came back to earth and ran as a Republican, you’d vote against Him.”

“Ah, hush!” Mrs. O’Reilly snaps back. “Why should He change His party after all these years?”

Mrs. O’Reilly would certainly understand the Catholic ethos Peggy Steinfels evoked with such eloquence, feeling, and thoughtfulness. But there are now many more Catholics like Mrs. O’Reilly’s son than there used to be. Although white Catholics are still more Democratic than white Protestants, Catholic voting is now heavily conditioned by class (well-off Catholics are more Republican) and by region (southern and western Catholics are generally more Republican than Catholics in the northeast and Midwest). And, of course, Latino Catholics, a growing part of the Church, have their own distinctive patterns. Especially in California, they are moving strongly toward the Democrats, though Latino trends are as diverse as the Latino community itself.

It’s worth noting that for all the frustration with Clinton that Steinfels describes, he has done unusually well for a Democrat among Catholic voters—not, to be sure, when compared with John F. Kennedy, but certainly when compared with other recent Democratic nominees. That suggests Clinton evokes something of the communitarian ethos that affects most Catholics, right, left, and center. And although Steinfels accurately describes Clinton’s stand on abortion, it’s also true that Clinton has made a point of painting the Democratic Party as less hostile to religion than some of his predecessors did. “Clinton’s greatest legacy may well be his leadership in reducing the bigotry against religion that has been expressed in recent decades by much of the Democratic Party and American liberalism,” Adam Meyerson, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, said a couple of years ago. Meyerson paints other Democrats too harshly, but his underlying point about Clinton is valid enough.

I share some of Steinfels’s frustration with Clinton—especially with his decision to sign the welfare bill and his stand on the death penalty. (In truth, there are few politicians in either party prepared to argue against the death penalty. My hope comes from evidence that falling crime rates are making many Americans think twice about capital punishment. Perhaps it will become politically possible for the more courageous politicians to speak out again against it.)

She’s also right in saying that making abortion a litmus test is a mistake for either party. The poli...