Catholics and Politics: The Dynamic Tension between Faith and Power

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

10
WHITE HOUSE OUTREACH
TO CATHOLICS

THOMAS J. CARTY

IN APRIL 2005 the Republican president, George W. Bush, knelt in front of the deceased Pope John Paul II, and by doing so, Bush became the first U.S. president to attend a papal funeral.1 By November 2006 this precedent-setting sign of respect for Catholicism seemed a distant memory for American Catholics. As the Iraq war dominated headlines and required more money and lives, a majority of Catholic voters repudiated the Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections.2 Was Bush's appeal to Catholics worth the effort? This chapter examines the methods, motives, and electoral impact of White House outreach to Catholics in order to understand better the role of religion in U.S. politics.

Presidents have increasingly appealed to Catholics as this group's demographic size and political power have grown. Representing 25 percent of the U.S. population, Catholics are the nation's largest religious denomination. Political observers have labeled the Catholic vote as a “barometer” for national, especially presidential, elections for several reasons.3 Positioned in big cities within states that possess large numbers of Electoral College voters, Catholics have the potential to determine election results— especially in close contests. Furthermore, American Catholics demonstrate no consistent loyalty to either the Democrats or Republicans. In recent years, evangelical Protestants have solidified an alliance with the Grand Old Party (GOP), and secular atheists have gravitated toward the Democrats. Yet Catholics in the aggregate have acted independently by selecting candidates based on personalities or issues unique to a particular election year more than party platforms. Based on this group's geographic position and ideological diversity, as noted by Matthew J. Streb and Brian Frederick in chapter 6, many political scientists refer to American Catholics as a “swing vote.”4

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