Catholics and Politics: The Dynamic Tension between Faith and Power

By Kristin E. Heyer; Mark J. Rozell et al. | Go to book overview

3
ONE CHURCH,
MANY MESSAGES
The Politics of the U.S. Catholic Clergy

GREGORY A. SMITH

ROUGHLY ONE IN FOUR ADULTS in the United States is Catholic, making this group a vitally important segment of the American electorate. Accordingly, an important part of the burgeoning research on religion and politics has focused on understanding the political attitudes and voting decisions of American Catholics, which has shed a great deal of light on the religion-politics connection within this group. But while much has been learned in recent years about how their Catholicism shapes the politics of American Catholics, one topic that has been somewhat underexplored is the question of the role played by Catholic religious leaders in influencing the politics of the American Catholic laity.

There are several potential sources of religious authority within the Church that might plausibly be expected to wield political influence with American Catholics. Most obviously, the Church hierarchy might be looked to as a source of political guidance. Surveys show, however, that many Catholics hold political opinions that diverge from Church teaching on a number of important issues. And the influence of the institutional Church is also limited by the fact that its political positions do not map well onto American politics. The argument here is that parish priests, by contrast, represent a more promising source of Church authority to which to look for evidence of political influence wielded by religious elites. Given their potential influence with such a large segment of the American electorate, it is vitally important to examine the nature and the tone of the political messages emanating from parish priests. Drawing on structured interviews with a sample of nine Catholic pastors conducted

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