WASHINGTON, D.C. — Catholics have been “the quintessential swing group” in American politics, said author and columnist Peter Beinart in an Oct. 23 forum on faith and politics sponsored by Seton Hall University.
“They used to be called ‘white ethnics,'” Beinart said in the forum, “Judaism and Christianity in the 2020 Election.” “They were immigrant Catholics in an era when there was a very high degree of Protestant nativism.”
Catholics were “attracted by the New Deal” to the Democrats, and “stayed with them for the postwar prosperity,” Beinart said, but they grew “disillusioned with Democrats in the wake of the cultural movements of the 1960s and the Vietnam War.”
As a consequence, “the Democratic Party has been trying to get them back ever since,” he added. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s presidential nominee, has been “trying to bring people quote-unquote like him — demographically like him — like himself but had drifted away from the Democratic Party,” into the fold, Beinart said.
How that plays itself out continues to fascinate, said Jon Radwan, an associate professor and chair of the communication program in Seton Hall’s College of Communication and The Arts, which sponsored an Oct. 21-23 virtual conference titled “Communication & Religion in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.”
“Leaders are people and people are citizens,” Radwan said, citing what he called “a landmark case” where “a Catholic leader finished preaching and went outside and made a statement about a candidate,” which upset some parishioners, but their complaints went nowhere.
“Leaders are people too and they have rights of free speech and political speech,” Radwan said, but “the organization itself can’t work toward particular parties or candidates.”
While church representatives are not supposed to endorse candidates, “any kind of supremacy angle is completely inappropriate” in politicking, Radwan declared, noting that all people are “made in the image and likeness of God.”
“Hypocrisy is an especially grievous sin that Jesus decries,” Radwan said, alluding to the Gospel passage proclaimed at churches the weekend of Oct. 17-18 of how Jesus’ foes tried to entrap him with a question about paying the census tax. “White supremacy is a grievous sin in my reading.”
In response to a question submitted at the forum, Beinart said, “I think that the abortion issue has played itself out.” Abortion “has come to define both of the political parties,” he added, although it was not always so. “In the 1980s and into the ’90s, there was a significant number of anti-abortion Democrats,” among them former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.
“There were prominent pro-choice Republicans,” Beinart added. “You would have found them all over in Boston and Connecticut.” But today, he said, “there’s very little diversity, especially among the elite level, on abortion.”
“Many Christians would not consider their position on abortion an ‘opinion,'” but “part of a full range of life issues” that for Catholics range from conception to natural death, Radwan said. “Does that viewpoint have an impact on voters? Yes,” he added, noting “there are many single-issue voters who are apparently willing to put up with other actions that seem to contract church teaching.”
“It’s amazing how little Joe Biden’s Catholicism has been in this election,” compared to Al Smith’s bid as a Democrat in 1928 “in the face of enormous anti-Catholic bigotry,” Beinart said. “John Kennedy had to give a speech disavowing the notion that he would take orders from the pope” in his 1960 run for the Oval Office, he added.
“Joe Biden is a practicing Catholic,” Radwan said. “But it’s a diverse church … and he’s adopted a pro-choice position.” Such diversity in political positions, he noted, runs through all groups, not just Catholics.
“Catholics,” suggested Radwan, “are maybe more diverse than people think.”
“It’s hard to generalize” whether Biden or incumbent President Donald Trump has attracted more religiously active people with their views, Beinart said, although Christians represent “a clear majority” of Americans, he added. “You’re talking hundreds of millions of people.”
It boils down to “why certain people emphasize certain elements over others,” Beinart said. “Black Christians are more more likely to vote Democratic, at 80 percent-90 percent. White Christians are voting Democratic at, say, 40 percent.”
He added, “It isn’t necessarily because Black Christians are more liberal on some issues … but they tend to emphasize different things. You need to look at people’s lived experiences and communal experiences to understand how they see their tradition as more relevant.”