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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn

Who will win the U.S. Catholic vote in November?

08/24/2016

Hillary Clinton was likened to Lucifer in a speech at the Republican National Convention, and then Donald Trump referred to her as “the devil.” Not to be outdone, at the Democratic National Convention, former New York Mayor Bloomberg called Trump “a con” saying, “The richest thing about Donald Trump is his hypocrisy.”

In a climate of highly personalized rhetoric and negativity, America’s two major political parties finished their respective (if not overly respectful) conventions this summer. My crystal ball suggests that the unpopularity of both presidential candidates will likely cause a lower voter turnout this November, that personal invective will play a larger role than clear policy debate, and that while faith will be used as a vote-gathering lever in these campaigns, religion is decreasing in importance as a determining element how people cast their ballot.

Hillary Clinton grew up Methodist and taught Sunday school. While her denomination once had social gospel roots, Clinton has been quoted as saying that lessening emphasis on personal salvation and individual faith was an error. While the Methodist denomination officially defines homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” and opposes legalizing gay marriage and solemnizing same-sex civil unions, Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, which she attends, calls itself a “reconciling congregation” that does not make distinctions among those whom it serves. Abortion is formally frowned upon by the United Methodist Church, but the denomination nevertheless opposes criminalizing abortion as a medical procedure.

When growing up, Donald Trump attended a Presbyterian church in New York, returning to be married there (for the first of his three marriages). He also attended Marble Collegiate Church. That historic congregation’s pastor was Norman Vincent Peale, whose 1952 best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking sold 2 million copies in six years. This message of personal fulfilment and the “prosperity gospel” mirrors more of “The Donald’s” personal credo than current Presbyterian policies. (Trump, it must be acknowledged, beat out five Catholic contenders to win the Republican nomination.)

Last February Pope Francis was not impressed with Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, saying, “a person who thinks only about building walls . . . and not about building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the Gospel.”

As for the vice-presidential candidates, Tim Kaine of the Democrats is a Jesuit-educated Catholic, and Republican Mike Pence was once an altar boy — but later converted to Evangelical Protestantism.

The Pew centre reports that those who identify themselves as “born-again or evangelical” Christians constitute a sizeable share of the U.S. electorate — 36 per cent of registered voters — compared to 37 per cent of American voters who are non-evangelical Christians. (Evangelicals are less than 12 per cent of the population in Canada.) Evangelicals are much more numerous within the Republican Party than among Democrats. Anecdotally, when once I attended a non-congregational religious service in Illinois, I noticed not one, but two Republican representatives had their photos and pamphlets included in the pew bulletin!

One key difference is race: whereas 87 per cent of Republican evangelicals are white, most Democrats who describe themselves as “born-again” or “evangelical” Christians are not white. This suggests that that race and economic status could be more of a deciding factor than religion among black and Hispanic evangelicals. (Alternatively, perhaps not all denominational members absorb the same Gospel messages.)

U.S. Catholics are politically the most split religious demographic — from 2002 to 2014 Catholics voted Democrat 50 per cent of the time. Jewish voters trended much more heavily to the Democrats (73 per cent) as did persons of non-Christian faiths (71 per cent) and persons of no religion (70 per cent). For their part, Protestants voted for the Democrats only 41 per cent of the time.

What is also revealing is that U.S. Catholics pay little political heed to their hierarchs. The centre of Applied Research in the Apostolate reports that only one in five Catholics recall reading the American bishops’ “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” and only one in 20 cites the document as a major influence in political choices. A Pew poll found that only 46 per cent of Catholics saw abortion as very important in deciding who to vote for, whereas other issues rated much higher: the economy (84 per cent), terrorism (81 per cent), health care (78 per cent), immigration (75 per cent) and even foreign policy (72 per cent).

The question for American Jesuit Tom Reese in 2016 is: will Catholics will go to Trump in high enough numbers to counter Clinton’s advantage among minorities.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.