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As Catholics Go, So Goes the Nation?
Laura R. Olson,

“As Maine goes, so goes the nation” is a longstanding aphorism in American politics. A more apt truism, however, might substitute “Catholics” for “Maine”: Catholic voters have supported the winning candidate in nine of the last ten presidential elections—and the exception was the disputed 2000 race. Both parties dearly covet Catholic voters and go to great lengths to court them. And there are plenty of Catholic voters to go around: one in four Americans is at least nominally Catholic. By now it is common knowledge that despite their past as a loyally Democratic component of the New Deal Coalition, Catholics today span the political gamut. Even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops works on both sides of the political aisle. So what should we expect from Catholics between now and November 6? A battle for prominence seems to be shaping up between the ongoing debate over religious freedom, and the contrasting priorities inherent in Catholic social teaching. The Romney campaign could benefit significantly from the triumph of the first, while the Obama campaign has much to gain from the second.

The saga began, of course, when the USCCB vociferously inserted itself into election-year politics, protesting a rule implemented by the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services that would require private employers to provide free contraception coverage through their insurance under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. The bishops attacked this rule as “an unwarranted government definition of religion, … a mandate to act against [Catholic] teachings, … and a violation of personal civil rights.” The USCCB achieved two results by voicing its concerns about the contraception provision: it quickly won a policy concession from the Obama administration, and it turned the question of whether Americans’ religious liberty was under attack into a widespread debate, despite the fact that in March, when the bishops first began to claim that the HHS mandate threatened Catholics’ religious freedom, a solid majority (57%) of Catholics agreed that religious liberty was NOT under threat.

Nevertheless, whether they meant it or not, the USCCB gave the Romney campaign a valuable gift when they put religious freedom on the public agenda. A recent Romney television ad asks: “Who shares your values? President Obama used his healthcare plan to declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith. Mitt Romney believes that’s wrong.” In just ten seconds, Romney alludes to the Religious Right’s trusty “vote your values” rubric, attacks Obama both substantively and symbolically, and plays to a generalized fear of encroaching secularism that more than a few Americans share.

The ad then takes a sharp detour, depicting Romney visiting with Lech Walesa in Poland and quoting Pope John Paul II’s imploratory words “Be not afraid,” which the late pontiff directed toward the anticommunist Polish resistance. This leap from free birth control to communist religious suppression might seem odd—except in its intended context as a targeted appeal to persuadable Catholic voters. By showcasing himself alongside the two most famous anticommunists of our time and asking viewers “When religious freedom is threatened, who do you want to stand with?” Romney implicitly likens Obama to a Soviet-era dictator. The producers of this ad should send the USCCB a thank-you note.

Meanwhile, Romney’s choice of a Catholic, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), as his running mate could appear to be a direct appeal for Catholic votes. However, as is always the case with Catholics and American politics, nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears. The very bishops who worry about threats to religious freedom have little tolerance for Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget proposal. Catholic social teaching, after all, is rooted in the respect it accords to human life in all its forms, from potential embryo until natural death. The bishops’ current statement on the federal budget includes this language:

A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects the lives and dignity of ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.

The deep cuts in federal spending proposed in Ryan’s budget plan would impose objective, immediate burdens on Americans who rely on all manner of social safety nets. Earlier this summer, a group of Catholic nuns were so moved by their concern about such budget cuts that they drove a bus across nine states (including Paul Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin) to raise awareness about the matter. There’s evidence, too, that Catholics overall disagree with Ryan’s proposed budget: a strong majority (72%) of Catholics believe that in order to reduce the deficit, it’s fair to ask wealthier Americans to pay a greater percentage in taxes than the middle class or those well off, while nearly two-thirds (65%) of Catholics also oppose cutting federal funding for social programs that help the poor, even in the name of reducing the nation’s budget deficit.

It remains to be seen how the bishops—and even more importantly, ordinary Catholic voters—will react to Romney’s elevation of Ryan and his fiscal conservatism. Will the theme of intrusive government infringing on religious freedom carry the day, or will concern for “the least of these” prevail? Perhaps the Obama campaign ultimately will need to send a thank-you note to the USCCB too.