Bush Hasn’t Won All of Pope’s Flock

Times Staff Writer

In the fall, President Bush accomplished a feat that eluded him in 2000 by winning the majority of votes cast by Roman Catholics. This week, he is expected to become the first U.S. president in history to attend the funeral of a pope.

Some might read Bush’s inclination to fly to Rome as a transparent attempt to court Catholics, a constituency in the cross hairs of strategists seeking to expand the Republican electoral base.

But for all the praise the president has lavished on Pope John Paul II in recent days, the relationship between the two men and their politics was tense and complex. And for all the attention paid to the role of social conservatives in Republican politics, the “Catholic vote” is still up for grabs.

“Both the pope and the president have indeed had an impact on socially conservative Catholics becoming more Republican,” said Mark J. Rozell, an expert on religion and politics at George Mason University outside Washington. “But the non-churchgoing or occasionally churchgoing still don’t identify with the Republican Party.”


In his comments after the pope’s death, Bush emphasized the pontiff’s support for the “culture of life” -- a phrase the president borrowed from the pope and uses to refer broadly to specific positions on abortion, euthanasia and marriage.

But the president made no mention of other issues on which he and the pope disagreed: the decision to go to war in Iraq, the death penalty and the West’s responsibility, in the pope’s view, to curb rampant consumerism and combat global poverty.

“The Holy Father’s position on issues didn’t fit easily into the American political alignment,” said James Guth of South Carolina’s Furman University, who studies the impact of religion on politics.

However, although John Paul espoused views that both Democrats and Republicans could claim, his promotion of conservative bishops and cardinals had the effect in the U.S. of emphasizing one side of his teachings over the other.

“The indirect result was to give strength to the social-issue conservatives within the church hierarchy, and that led more-traditionalist Catholics to vote for President Bush and Republican candidates on the social conservative issues,” said John C. Green, an expert on religion and voting patterns at the University of Akron in Ohio.

However, Green and other analysts note that traditionalists are far from a majority of U.S. Catholics, and that non-Latino Catholics do not clearly favor one party, breaking about evenly among Republicans, Democrats and independents. Latino Catholics are predominantly Democrats, according to a 2003 study by the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies.

“The Catholic Church is more divided today than it’s ever been,” Guth said. “If you look at the three biggest religious traditions in America -- Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism and mainline Protestantism -- the Catholic tradition is by far the most divided.”

For decades, Catholics voted reliably for Democrats. But starting in 1972, although remaining predominantly Democratic in registration, many backed Republicans in presidential races. In recent presidential elections, Catholics split roughly in half. In 1996, Bill Clinton took 60% of the vote, but in the 2000 election Al Gore won just 50%. By contrast, Bush won 47% of the Catholic vote in 2000, then 52% in November.


Analysts say it would be wrong to see Catholics’ growing support for Republicans as a sign that their views are becoming more conservative. Rather, the focus on social issues promoted by the president and the late pope -- such as opposition to legalized abortion and to same-sex marriage -- encouraged traditionalist Catholics to cast their ballots according to their beliefs on those topics instead of on traditional election issues such as jobs and the economy.

“Catholics haven’t become more conservative,” said the University of Akron’s Green. “They have pretty much the same views as they had in the past. The difference is that more traditionalist Catholics have connected their views to their vote, which meant they voted more Republican.”

“Modernist” Catholics, who by some tallies outnumber the traditionalists, remain staunch Democrats and last year voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who is Catholic.

“White Catholics should not be caricatured as traditional social conservatives,” Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling firm, wrote last week after surveying Catholic voters. “They are fairly tolerant of America’s social diversity, including homosexuality. They are open to pro-choice Democrats who favor fewer abortions. And they firmly align with progressive developments in science, like stem cell research, even when opposed by the church.”


In addition, to the extent that Catholics as a whole are better educated and more middle-class than they were a few decades ago, some identify more with the GOP, which traditionally has been more aligned with wealthy Americans.

“Catholics moved out of the cities and into the suburbs and grew affluent and became Republicans, just like everybody else,” Rozell said.

Perhaps equally important in enlarging Catholics’ role in Republican politics has been the decline in anti-Catholic views among many Protestants.

Until President Reagan sent an ambassador to the Holy See in 1984, the United States did not have formal relations with the Vatican. Though Protestants were once suspicious of Catholics and emphasized doctrinal differences, activists on social issues now embrace Catholics as allies.


“Universally, there’s a feeling this pope was a man who shared our values.... He was a bulwark against communism ... he was a bulwark for life, he was a bulwark for the sanctity of marriage,” the Rev. Pat Robertson, the Southern Baptist televangelist, said Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

“Protestants don’t give the same deference to Mary that the Catholics do, but that’s something that we sort of put aside,” he added. “We don’t dwell on that point of difference.”

The last time a pope died -- Pope John Paul I in September 1978 -- Jimmy Carter was president, and there was little suggestion that he should attend the funeral. Instead, he sent his mother, Lillian, to represent the country.

But since then, starting with Carter when John Paul II visited the U.S. in 1979, American presidents have courted the pontiff, perhaps none so assiduously as Bush. But analysts say that such a courtship may hold sway only with the traditional Catholics who most revere the pope.


Luckily for Bush, those are the Catholics most drawn to the Republican Party.

“Indeed, this president and this pope had a great deal of impact on polarizing the different camps in the Catholic community,” Rozell said. “The real division in American politics is between the devout and those who are occasional participants. And that cuts across religions.”