Traditionalist Catholics Heart Obama


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First Things has posted its regular report from John Green on the Unversity of Akron’s quadrennial post-election National Survey of Religion and Politics, and I’ll bet the editors got a bit of an unpleasant shock. Alongside the unsurprising news that African Americans and Ethnic Protestants (read: Latinos) jumped toward Obama (from the 2004 Kerry vote) by 12 and 27 points respectively was the surprising news that Traditionalist White Catholics had also shifted toward Obama, by no less than 17 points.

To be sure, these folks still favored McCain, by a margin of 61-39. Nonetheless, they favored McCain by smaller margins than either Traditionalist White Evangelicals (89-11) or Traditionalist White Mainline Protestants (68-32), both of whom actually shifted slightly towards the GOP candidate. And Modernist and Centrist White Catholics also shifted toward McCain, by pretty hefty margins, such that Traditionalist Catholics ended up 10 points more favorably inclined toward Obama than their Centrist co-religionists. So what’s up with that?

The best that John can manage is the following:

Opposition to the Iraq War may account for Obama’s gains among
Traditionalist Catholics: In 2004 more than three-quarters supported
the war, but a majority opposed it in 2008. The Catholic Church opposed
the Iraq War and its leaders, from the pope to parish priests,
regularly criticized it. In addition, prominent Catholics joined the
debate on related policies, such as the interrogation, surveillance,
and detention practices of the Bush administration. It is interesting, however, that such policies could influence these voters, given their
other issue positions. For example, Traditionalist Catholics were
staunchly pro-life on abortion and, like the Centrist Catholics, tended
to hold conservative views on economic issues. And as in 2004, they
gave lower priority to economic matters than many other religious

John notes that Centrist Catholics tended to support the Iraq War, but even so, this seems to me a pretty weak reed on which to rest so striking a divergence, inasmuch as the war was cited as the most important issue in the election by only 10 percent of voters.

Let me offer, instead, the hypothesis that the swing towards Obama among Traditionalist Catholics had less to do with the circumstances of the 2008 election than with their antipathy to voting for a pro-choice Catholic in 2004. In fact, this voting bloc swung heavily away from the Democratic candidate (to the tune of 17 points) between 2000 and 2004. So in November they more or less reverted to their 2000 voting pattern.

If I’m right and Traditionalist Catholics have more of a problem voting for a pro-choice Catholic than a pro-choice non-Catholic, that’s both good and bad news for conservative Catholic hierarchs and intellectuals. On the one hand, it suggests that the message that Catholic politicians should be pro-life (delivered delicately if unmistakably by the pope to Speaker Pelosi yesterday) has definitely gotten through to the old-time faithful. On the other, it indicates that such Catholics understand this to be less a natural law injunction incumbent on all members of society than a religious obligation for their own kind. That a staunch pro-choicer like Obama can garner two out of every five Traditionalist White Catholic votes helps makes sense of the high pro-life anxiety that seems to have taken hold in so many episcopal breasts.