WASHINGTON – The 2016 presidential campaign has revealed previously submerged splits within two major groups of religiously oriented voters, Catholics and evangelicals, a panel of political news reporters and analysts says.
Convened March 30 at Georgetown University, one of the nation’s leading Catholic universities, the panel was supposed to discuss “Faith, Francis and the 2016 Campaign,” referring to the huge impact that Pope Francis I has had in the U.S. and worldwide.
But the group, including veteran columnist and author E.J. Dionne, Lauren Ashburn of the conservative Catholic EWTN network, Michael Winter of the National Catholic Reporter, Emma Green, the 20s-ish Washington bureau chief for The Atlantic, and Gregory Smith of the Pew Center for research, quickly veered away from that topic.
Instead, they focused on the surprising developments, religiously, on the campaign trail – everything from Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., who is Jewish, being the candidate who quotes Francis the most to evangelical voters deserting Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for thrice-divorced billionaire businessman Donald Trump.
Indeed, several panelists said their biggest surprise was evangelicals’ devotion to Trump, the runaway leader for the Republican nomination. The GOP campaign took up most of the 2-hour discussion.
“They’re disaggregated,” Green said of the evangelical voters. “They go for Trump, an adulterer who gambles, who doesn’t have Biblical literacy.” Cruz, running a distant second to Trump, openly based his campaign on the evangelicals, panelists noted. But Trump wins them.
Dionne noted his research and reporting shows the evangelicals’ movement to the New York mogul “is tribal.” He added, “That’s different from doing Christianity in a public way.”
“Concerns that have nothing to do with religion are trumping religious faith,” Smith said, while Green said that “anger has trumped religion and religion has trumped politics. I’ve never seen this before.” She added that Trump is handling “a fire hose of fear.”
Meanwhile, Catholic voters – many of them unionists – have split into five segments, and Catholic bishops, given the positions of the candidates on all issues, must rethink the whole basis of the Church’s political platform for the last two or three decades, abortion.
Smith, drawing on Pew Research data, said U.S. Catholics are “diverse,” not monolithic as they were in the 1930s-1950s. Catholics are approximately one-fourth of U.S. voters.
“One third are Latino” predominantly in the West and Southwest, tugging the church’s geographic center of gravity westward and its politics towards the left, he noted. Some 67-75 percent of registered Latino Catholics are strongly Democratic, Smith said. And another 8 percent are from other racial or ethnic backgrounds.
Of the rest, fewer than six in 10 are non-Hispanic whites, a record low. But they’re in key states around the Great Lakes, such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
A large bloc of those six in 10 “are ideologically liberal,” Smith reported. And there’s another large bloc of U.S. white Catholics “who are ideologically Republican.” All that leaves 30 percent of U.S. non-Hispanic white Catholics swinging in the middle, he said.
But many Catholics, Ashburn contended, still view U.S. politics through the prism of one issue: Abortion. In her interviews on the campaign trail, jobs and the economy run distantly second to pro-life stands among such Catholics. They’re a minority, other panelists replied.
That prompted Dionne to bring Pope Francis back into the political conversation. Dionne also noted – in an understatement – that the Pope and Trump “have had a little back-and-forth.” Francis has criticized Trump’s stands on immigrants and his campaign for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, among other issues. Trump has fired back with tweets.
“There are pro-life, pro-social justice Catholics,” Dionne said. “And Francis made the case that abortion is not the one and only issue on which Catholics should vote.”
Winter then pointed out that voters who profess no religious ties, the “nones” in the Pew surveys, are actually the group that most identifies with, and follows Francis’ teachings. He added “past connections between religion and right wing politics” are driving younger voters into the “nones” camp. They’re also the voters, though he did not say so, who go for Sanders.
“They’re saying ‘If being a religious person means being a right wing Republican, being in opposition to gay marriage, being in opposition to abortion, then I’m not a religious person.'”
Fear, especially of Muslims, is also driving the campaign, the panelists said. And both Trump and Cruz are playing on it, several said. That disturbs Dionne, who is also an historian.
“This is where we miss George W. Bush,” who went out of his way not to demonize Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, said Dionne. “This is not the America I know, this is not the America I value,” Bush said of anti-Muslim hatred in a speech at D.C.’s leading mosque just six days afterwards.
“But now, you’ve seen on the right a complete retreat, all the way to opposing a mosque at Ground Zero” – the destroyed Twin Towers in New York City – “which wasn’t a mosque and wasn’t at Ground Zero,” Dionne said. “I see a lot of similarities in that to past anti-Catholicism.” Added Ashburn: “There are fewer pockets of grace than there are pockets of fear” in the 2016 campaign.
In the Democratic contest between Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Dionne noted that Clinton’s huge margins among African-American voters come not just because of her husband’s White House record but because “she’s comfortable campaigning in black churches, and black churches are where much of black politics are.”
Clinton’s overwhelming majorities among African-Americans propelled her to primary wins, especially in the South, and a large delegate lead over Sanders.
And “Catholic liberals are really cheap dates for the Democrats,” Winter added. “But I don’t know how you reconcile the doctrine of grace” that Francis preaches and that he cited in his address to Congress six months ago with the current campaign. “It doesn’t resemble anything any of the candidates are saying,” Winter concluded.
Photo: Evangelical voters have split between Trump and Criuz this election season. | AP