Catholic Politics

October 11, 2012

Tonight history will be made as two Catholics will face each other in the Vice Presidential debate. This is the first election where both major political parties have a Catholic on the ticket. While Joe Biden is the first Catholic Vice President in U.S. history, Paul Ryan hopes to become the first Republican one. Five other Catholics previously ran unsuccessfully for Vice President, with four of them Democrats (and two of the Democrats serving on the 1972 ticket with George McGovern). It will be interesting to see if Catholic politics come into play during the debate. U.S. Catholic bishops are for health care reform in general but opposed Obamacare. Ryan might bring that up against Biden. However, U.S. Catholic bishops also have spoken out in opposition to Ryan's budget for not following Catholic teachings regarding the moral responsibility to care for the poor (I noted this in a recent letter to the editor in the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record). Biden might bring this up against Ryan. All of this matters since Catholics are the ultimate political swing vote, supporting the winner of the presidential race in every election since 1972--including when Catholics backed George W. Bush over Catholic John Kerry in 2004 (2000 is a bit of split as white Catholics backed the electoral college winner--Bush--while Catholics overall backed the popular vote winner--Al Gore). Tonight seems like an appropriate night for this Catholic-Catholic political debate. Today is the 50th anniversary of the start Vatican II, a series of meetings over several years that substantially transformed the Catholic Church. In addition to changes like having Mass in the native language of the people (instead of always Latin), Vatican II also brought political changes. These changes, as I note in my book Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics, included a formal nod of approval for separation of church and state (which ended the main political argument used by Protestant critics of John F. Kennedy in 1960) and the setting of the stage for the rise of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to speak out on political issues (as they did during the Obamacare debate). With these changes, we now see increased political influence of Catholics, especially for the growing group of evangelical Catholics. Today I had the opportunity to speak on a James Madison University School of Public and International Affairs Symposium panel on "Religion in the 2012 Election." Among the issue we talked about were the swing vote role of Catholics, tonight's debate, and the political pronouncements of U.S. bishops. Clearly religion is impacting this year's election, as we have seen consistently over the past few decades.

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