Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Oct/09

30

Why are Catholics Democrats?

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Norman Podhortez just came out with a book, Why Are Jews Liberals?. It seems that this as intellectually interesting as writing a book, “Why are blacks Democrats?”, would be. You can tick off specific reasons, but in ethnic terms American liberalism and the Democratic party is a minoritarian coalition. To some extent it has been true since the recruitment of the Irish in the urban North in the early 19th century as allies with the outnumbered partisans of slave power. In fact The American Jewish Identity Survey tells us that once Jews become Christian, they aren’t so liberal. Here are the percentage of Republicans by Jewish subgroup:

Jews by ethnic origin & religion – 13%
Jews by ethnic origin, irreligious – 13%
Jewish by ethnic origin, “Other religion,” which is mostly Christian – 40%

Jews of other religion are also less intelligent than the other two groups, 36% college graduates vs. 57% for Jews who are religious and irreligious.

In any case, if Norman Podhoretz wants Jews to become Republican, he should encourage conversion to Christianity. Specifically, Protestant Christianity. Look what rock-ribbed Republicans Jim Talent and Marvin Olasky became. And don’t even talk about Howard Phillips, he wants to bring back to the inquisition for idolaters and pagans!

But I come not to talk of Jews, but of Catholics. As I said, the rise of the Democratic party as we know it was to a great extent concomitant with the first waves of Irish Catholic immigrants to Northern cities. The historical details of this are well known, so I won’t go into it, but to some extent the ties still are operative. According to the exit polls, last fall Barack Obama won 47% of white Catholics. He only won 34% of white Protestants! This is still a large difference.

Some of this might be accounted for my region and ethnicity (e.g., Italians and Northeasterners are more likely to be Catholic). So I looked in the GSS. There’s a variable “ETHNIC,” which asks where one’s ancestors came from. I wanted to look at a few groups, especially ones where the sample size wasn’t too small, and where there were likely to be Catholics and Protestants. So

1) French, who are those whose ancestors come from French Canada or France

2) German, whose ancestors come from German or Austria

3) British, whose ancestors are from England, Wales or Scotland

4) Mexican, whose ancestors come from Mexico

5) American Indian, whose ancestors come from Mother Earth’s union with Coyote

Some of these groups, such as Germans, had Protestant and Catholic cohorts from the beginning. By contrast, Mexican Americans have a large Protestant contingent through conversion (though some indigenous immigrants from Chiapas were converted in Mexico). American Indians were targeted by both Protestants and Catholics. Finally, though Huguenots have been prominent in the American aristocracy (Franklin Delano Roosvelt’s mother was a Huguenot, as were the ancestors of many Southern low country planters), I assume most Protestant French Americans arrived at their religion through conversion on these shores.

I also limited the sample to 1992 and later to have some contemporary relevance.

Then I compared these classes to two categories, political ideology and political party. I created an “index” of liberalism and Democratic orientation, so that I simply multiplied the frequency in each class by an integer. Ergo:

Index of liberalism = (% liberal) X 2 + (% moderate) X 1 + (% conservative) X 0
Index of Demo orientation = (% Democrat) X 2 + (% Independent) X 1 + (% Republican) X 0

So an index of liberalism of 1 means perfect balance, while below 1 means somewhat conservative, and above 1 means somewhat liberal (2 being all liberal). The same for Democrats. Then I took the ratio of Catholics to Protestants by their indices.

Liberalism Index





French German Mexican British American Indian
Protestant 0.88 0.73 0.85 0.68 0.83
Catholic 0.86 0.8 0.96 0.93 0.85
Catholic/Protestant Ratio 0.97 1.1 1.13 1.37 1.02












Democratic Index





French German Mexican British American Indian
Protestant 0.9 0.77 1.06 0.77 1.08
Catholic 1.07 0.88 1.32 0.95 1.37
Catholic/Protestant Ratio 1.19 1.13 1.24 1.24 1.26

What you see here is clear: Catholics remain more Democratic than their Protestant brethren. Some of this might be regional, but the effect seems to still show up if I constrain by region (though in some cases it does dampen a fair amount). The sample sizes for American Indians was small, but the party identification difference is outside of 95% confidence intervals.

Specific hypotheses? For Mexican Americans there are many reasons that Catholics are more likely to be Democrats. They’re probably a higher proportion of immigrants, and less assimilated and integrated into American society than Protestants. Protestants are mostly converts, and conversion will presumably be more likely for those who engage and interface with the majority Protestant society more often. The other groups are a bit more confused. The people of British origin are ancestrally mostly Protestant. Those who are Catholic today, whether through intermarriage or conversion, are different politically from those who remain Protestant. I suspect it has to do with a bias in terms of the type of person who would convert to a minority religion, or marry into a minority religion (Orestes Brownson was a nut). In regards to the Germans, only a minority of Protestant Germans are Lutheran (though some German immigrants were likely of Reformed persuasion, these would be a minority), rather, they’re well distributed across Protestant denominations. This suggests to me a high degree of assimilation and integration. By contrast, the Roman Catholic German population was an organized redoubt of anti-assimilationist fervor down to World War I, a fact which drove Irish American Roman Catholic clerics such as John Ireland crazy. As for the French Americans, I suspect that a more thorough process occurred with them that is occurring with Mexican Americans. I have read that the minority of Japanese Americans who adhere to the Buddhist Church in America are somewhat more ostentatious in maintaining their Japanese cultural traditions (e.g., language) than their co-ethnics who have converted to Christianity. I see no reason why this wouldn’t be true of Catholics (the majority of people of Irish descent today in the United States are Protestant, but I suspect they’re less obviously “Irish” in their cultural markers in part because of their religious break from tradition). Despite modern America’s Protestantization of Catholicism, just a few generations ago being of a non-Protestant faith was profoundly alienating from the mainstream (see Catholicism and American Freedom: A History).

I’m not presenting this to suggest that Catholics are inherently liberal or Democratic. The differences are not that extreme, though they seem robust and significant. But it is somewhat ironic in light of the role of Roman Catholic intellectuals at the highest reaches of the conservative movement, particularly at publications such as National Review. No, as I said, I suspect that Catholic adherence to the Left party out of the expected range of their demographic otherwise is a function of their minority status. Similarly, the small number of French Protestants who remained after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes were suspiciously well represented among French radicals involved in the Revolution which overthrew the ancien regime which had oppressed and marginalized them so. Obviously there’s nothing necessarily revolutionary about French Protestantism, rather, Catholicism was the customary and traditional religion of the French nation, and so it bespoke a streak of nonconformity to remain true to the Calvinist faith in France after the cessation of toleration for said faith.

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24 comments

  • Tom Piatak · October 30, 2009 at 8:29 am

    This is a very interesting question, one which should give pause to immigration enthusiasts on the right, because I think part of the reason for the difference may indeed be a greater lingering sense of being an outsider among American Catholics than among American Protestants. If that is happening three to four generations after Ellis Island, and five to six generations after the Potato Famine, among people who often are better off than rural white American Protestants, why should anyone think that newer immigrants will become conservatives or Republicans anytime soon?

  • Susan · October 30, 2009 at 8:59 am

    In Massachusetts, anyway, Irish Catholics were not welcome in the Republican party, even up to the nineteen-sixties. Joseph P. Kennedy would have been more at home, in fiscal matters anyway, in the Republican party, but his ethnicity and religion precluded that option. So…all the Irish Catholics became Democrats.

    Today it seems to be more of a tribal identification: if you’re Irish and Catholic, you’re a Democrat, even if your political inclination might be more Republican. The same is true of other white ethnic Catholics, which goes a long way to explain why the Republican party is all but dead in Massachusetts.

    An Irish Catholic acquaintance of mine told me once that she would like to vote for Republicans, but simply can’t bring herself to do it because of her heritage.

  • Richard Rosenbluth · October 30, 2009 at 9:02 am

    One brief comment on the “Jewish question.” What makes Jews even more likely to vote Republican than becoming Christian, is becoming more Jewish. In fact, 75-85% of Orthodox Jews consistently vote Republican.

  • Author comment by David Hume · October 30, 2009 at 9:33 am

    In fact, 75-85% of Orthodox Jews consistently vote Republican.

    give me some survey data. i don’t believe that that’s true. (though yes, the orthodox are *more* republican)

  • Susan · October 30, 2009 at 9:57 am

    According to a survey done by the American Jewish Committee, McCain had the support of 78 percent of Orthodox Jews in the 2008 election.

  • Craig · October 30, 2009 at 10:11 am

    I’ve been pondering this issue lately myself, and it seems to me Catholicism has more in common with modern day liberalism than conservatism. Many of the same arguments could be made about religion in general, even though the political right seems to have been stuck with the “religious kooks” stereotype.

    But Catholicism in particular has a number of principles that run parallel with liberalism: inherent, inescapable guilt, for one. The only absolution for the guilt one was born with is strict obedience and faith. Does the left not preach that humans are fundamentally evil by nature? Are they not constantly elevating natural and environmental concerns over human concerns? And do they allow for questioning the precepts handed down from “on high” (being that global warming is real and anthropogenic, and that we must all suffer and sacrifice in order to right the wrongs we’ve visited on the planet)?

    Not all religions are religions, and it would seem the left’s religion is just as faith-based and guilt-ridden as Catholicism. Not to mention emphasis on worship, gratitude and blind trust in higher powers and a future utopia, and so forth. When one (usually on the right) accuses the left of being the party of atheists, they might consider that liberal self-styled “atheists” have simply substituted reverence of one religion for another.

  • Author comment by David Hume · October 30, 2009 at 10:18 am

    susan, tx. corrected!

  • Author comment by David Hume · October 30, 2009 at 10:26 am

    ok, i looked at the data
    http://www.ajc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=ijITI2PHKoG&b=2818289&content_id={1031E98B-96D6-4CA2-A3FD-2A1E4411F777}&notoc=1

    the survey was taken in mid-late september, and its topline is that jews favor obama 57-30.

    final CNN exit polls show that obama won jews 78-21
    http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/polls/#val=USP00p2

    so a number of 78 per for orthodox jews is probably too high. in the ajc survey obama gets the support of 62% of ‘just jewish’ and 61% of reform. obviously there was a shift in the whole jewish vote toward him by election day. so again, i’m pretty sure orthodox jews are much more republican, perhaps majority, but 75-85% is wrong.

  • Susan · October 30, 2009 at 10:37 am

    @David Hume

    It’s not scientific, but I did run across an article somewhere that said that 85% of the Orthodox Jewish voters of Rockland County went for George Bush.

    As for Catholics, I found something from the University of Oregon (apparently someone’s thesis) that claimed that in 1960, 82% of Catholics voted Democrat and in 1964 80%. This percentage had dwindled to the mid-forties by 1980 and 1984.

    In 1960 (again according to the same source) 62% of Catholics said they were Democrats. In 1996, 41% of Catholics said they were Democrats.

  • Clark · October 30, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Great post. I think the history of groups who tend to vote in a dominate way are always history. Both in terms of the movement but also the history of the outliers like say conservative African Americans. (Interestingly the first Black Senator was, I believe, a Republican)

    It’s just as interesting for other groups, such as why Mormons vote overwhelmingly Democrat. I’d be interested in a history of the Evangelical voting block which I believe only went Republican in the 70’s and 80’s. (I could be wrong) It’s also interesting that atheists, from what I can see, don’t seem to be tied to a single voting bloc the way many other groups. are.

  • Clark · October 30, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Regarding Catholicism one can’t neglect the role liberation theology has played in the thinking of many priests. Yes, the main leaders have often looked askance at liberation theology but it’s quasi-Marxist way of thinking about Catholic theology has been hugely influential, especially in Central and South America where many American Catholics have roots.

  • Author comment by David Hume · October 30, 2009 at 11:04 am

    clark, well there are local circumstances. e.g., there used to be a tendency for italians to be republican in some cities because the democratic party was so dominated by the irish american political machine. similarly, some jews were republicans in the mold of jacob javits when ideological polarization between the parties was much more modest and the republicans were the “clean politics” party in the north.

  • Stopped Clock · October 30, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Let’s not forget the ever increasing share of Mexicans in the Catholic vote, many of whom will identify as white on a census.

  • Author comment by David Hume · October 30, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Let’s not forget the ever increasing share of Mexicans in the Catholic vote, many of whom will identify as white on a census.

    stopped clock, the exit polls bracketed out latinos. so that’s 47% of white non-hispanic catholics who voted for obama. what share of american catholics do you think are hispanic? i’m curious as to people’s intuitions.

  • mtraven · October 30, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    @Craig I’m confused, I thought it was conservatives who were aware of the inherent and enduring nature of evil, whereas leftists persist in believing human nature to be essentially good and perfectible. Didn’t John Derbyshire just issue a book based on this premise?

  • Author comment by David Hume · October 30, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    i think situational context is a much better predictor than the inferences one can make from belief systems on paper. liberal catholics ground their politics in their religion, and so do conservative catholics.

    As for Catholics, I found something from the University of Oregon (apparently someone’s thesis) that claimed that in 1960, 82% of Catholics voted Democrat and in 1964 80%. This percentage had dwindled to the mid-forties by 1980 and 1984.

    In 1960 (again according to the same source) 62% of Catholics said they were Democrats. In 1996, 41% of Catholics said they were Democrats.

    yes. my point isn’t that white catholics are more democratic than republican, they’re not, they’re at rough parity. rather, they seem much more democratic than white protestants, who are overwhelmingly republican. the poking around above suggests that even if you correct for ethnic group this holds. a bigger and more robust data set for german americans is what i would especially be curious about.

  • Dan L · October 30, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    In additional to a regional effect, white Protestants are probably more likely to live in rural areas than white Catholics and rural voters tend to be more conservative.

  • Author comment by David Hume · October 30, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    yep. again though, that is why i looked at say german catholics, and german protestants. as opposed to comparing the irish, where a lot of scotch-irish in rural areas are confounded with catholic irish who live in urban areas.

  • Mark in Spokane · October 30, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    One reason is that Catholic culture, strongly influenced by nearly a 900 years of Catholic social teaching, has a much more positive view of government than Protestantism does. Catholicism’s view of the Fall is different from that found in confessional and evangelical Protestantism (Catholics don’t believe in total depravity, for example), and consequently there is a much stronger emphasis both on individual and collective good works. Thomas Aquinas, while he has what might generously be called something of a libertarian streak when it comes to criminal law, still has a very expansive understanding of the legitimate role of government in terms of its overall scope. Catholic social theorists up until the late 1960’s built on Thomas’ work.

    It isn’t just liberation theology or immigrant culture at work here. There is a deeper strand within Catholic theology that is optimistic about human nature (relative to some other types of Christian theology, of course) and therefore optimistic about what humans can collectively accomplish, including through government. This is something deep within Catholicism and Catholic culture. Note that not all that many Catholics who are on the right tend to be libertarians. Much more likely to be neo-cons or traditional conservatives. Why? The culture of the religion, I think, explains it.

  • Author comment by David Hume · October 30, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    mark, i don’t think that the stuff you say matters much. nor do i think much of it is true. e.g.,:
    has a much more positive view of government than Protestantism does.

    until recently all the protestant european states had established or national churches. the lutheran church in scandinavia was basically an arm of the state. in prussia the king forced the merger of luthernan and reformed churches into a big protestant confession (one reason that the missouri synod lutherans were formed, they were lutherans who opposed the merger). england of course still has the anglican church, of which the monarch is the head. scotland has the reformed church of scotland, the kirk. geneva was famous, as was the domination which the reform held in the netherlands for centuries.

    no, what you’re talking about is sectarian “radical reformation” protestantism, which is now the majority of american protestants. baptists, the methodists (who started out as an evangelical movement), charismatics, etc. but this form of protestantism became dominant in the united states with the emergence of the early republic, and so its values were intermingled in a manner which is hard to disentangle.

    you’re right about the official catholic attitude toward government, but this is the normal attitude toward government of religion and most conservatives in the world. america is exceptional and atypical in its libertarian streak, and i do not think one needs to necessarily accept that the radical protestants affected this as much as the libertarianism of america influenced the radical protestants. many of the leading small government southern gentry were episcopalian after all (outwardly if not privately, as in the case of jefferson whose personal beliefs leaned toward unitarianism).

    Note that not all that many Catholics who are on the right tend to be libertarians. Much more likely to be neo-cons or traditional conservatives. Why? The culture of the religion, I think, explains it.

    i’m inclined to go along with you. extreme libertarians have a secular streak. but, look at the paleolibs. rothbard was a thomist, and rockwell is a catholic, and thomas e. woods jr. is a convert. von mises was from a jewish family, but they had converted to catholicism by the time he was born.

  • Secular Right » Catholic Republicans are more liberal than Protestant Republicans · October 30, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    [...] post below, Why are Catholics Democrats?, has prompted a great deal of discussion. Some of it quite interesting, though I disagree with the [...]

  • James · October 31, 2009 at 5:04 am

    Susan :

    Susan

    In Massachusetts, anyway, Irish Catholics were not welcome in the Republican party, even up to the nineteen-sixties. Joseph P. Kennedy would have been more at home, in fiscal matters anyway, in the Republican party, but his ethnicity and religion precluded that option. So…all the Irish Catholics became Democrats.

    Fortunately for me my Irish Catholic ancestors settled in cosmopolitan New York rather than tribal Boston. My parents were Democrats but voted against FDR. When I reached voting age I registered as a Republican and have been one ever since as were my siblings.

  • Susan · October 31, 2009 at 10:06 am

    @James

    I know many NY Irish Catholics who’ve had your same experience. I’ve even known of Massachusetts Irish Catholics who’ve transplanted themselves to NY, and the next generation of the family became Republican. It’s fascinating. Perhaps the NY Republicans were smart enough to welcome all comers. The WASP Republicans in Massachusetts caused their own demise as any kind of meaningful political force by being exclusionary. Which pushed the Irish (and other white ethnic Catholics) into the Democratic Party. And into being more tribal.

  • Susan · October 31, 2009 at 10:07 am

    @mtraven

    I was wondering the same thing. Most liberals I know seem convinced that humans can be legislated into perfection.

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