Why are Catholics Democrats?

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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