By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 4/5/2005 8:59:09 AM ET 2005-04-05T12:59:09
News Analysis

By attending the funeral mass for Pope John Paul II, President Bush is demonstrating his esteem for one of the great men of the Twentieth Century, as well as his respect for the 63 million American Catholics back home.

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The Constitution says "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust," but that does not mean that political leaders can’t take part in a historic event as a way of expressing solidarity with their supporters.

It is fatuous to speak of "the Catholic vote" — American Catholics disagree among themselves as much as non-Catholics do about the death penalty, the Iraq war, abortion and the redistribution of wealth.

Lessons of 2004 election
But to understand why it is Bush, not John Kerry, who is heading to Rome as the first president to attend a papal funeral, it is useful to focus on Catholic voters, who account for about one-fourth of the electorate.

Focus especially on some of the states where the more conservative Catholics live. Catholics in Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, for example have long been committed to an active anti-abortion advocacy. Bush won Iowa last November, the first Republican in 20 years to do so, and came close to winning Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

Last November, exit poll interviews indicated that 52 percent of self-identified Catholics voted for Bush, compared to 47 percent for Kerry.

It was a remarkable change from 1992 when Bush’s father ran for re-election and managed to win only 35 percent of self-identified Catholics.

Four days before the pope’s death, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg issued a report on how Democratic candidates might try to regain support of Catholics.

Polling reveals Democrats' problems
Greenberg’s survey found that 58 percent of white Catholics agreed with the statement that Republicans "know what they stand for," while only 25 percent of white Catholics believe that Democrats know what they stand for.

Another finding for Democratic leaders to mull over: 52 percent of white Catholics see the Republicans as the party that respects religious faith, compared to 29 percent who see the Democrats as the party that respects religion.

Greenberg’s firm conducted a survey of 1,033 white Catholic likely voters, from Feb. 22 to Feb. 28. The survey had a margin of error of 3.1 percent. (It focused on white voters because black voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Democrats.)

Greenberg recommended economic populism to woo Catholics: “Highlight the Democrats as the middle-class party, focused on work and personal responsibility…. There is very strong support for a Democratic candidate who rolls back tax cuts for the wealthy and deplores excessive CEO salaries….”

Even if Democrats devise a class-based strategy that appeals to some Catholics, pending federal court decisions mean that same-sex marriage and abortion will continue to dominate the agenda for many voters.

In Nebraska, for example, a federal judge will decide whether to strike down the state constitution’s provision restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.

Greenberg notes that "Among white Catholics there are a lot more self- identified Democrats than Kerry voters and even more who had voted for Clinton in 1996." He estimates that these "defectors," as he calls them, are nearly 20 percent of white Catholic voters. And not surprisingly, his survey found they emphatically oppose same-sex marriage.

The death penalty dilemma
The power of Catholicism, in electoral terms, reaches beyond opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage to another emotional issue, the death penalty.

On March 21, the U.S. Catholic bishops launched their Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.

One of the nation’s most prominent Catholic politicians, Sen. Rick Santorum, R- Pa., his party’s crusader against abortion and same-sex marriage, said on March 23 that he has re-assessed his previous support for the death penalty.

“While I still support the death penalty, I think that we should look at it under more limited circumstances than we have in the past,” he told reporters.

Referring to his first Senate campaign in 1994, Santorum, “I have more concerns about it now than I did then.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D- N.Y., in charge of enlisting Senate candidates as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has recruited a socially conservative Catholic, Bob Casey, Jr. to run against Santorum. It was a pragmatic recognition of the power of Catholic voters and Catholic candidates. Santorum is expected to attend the pope's funeral with a Congressional delegation.

All this is a far cry from 1960, when some Protestant ministers warned that if John Kennedy, a Catholic, were elected president, he’d take his marching orders from the Vatican.

Kennedy's 1960 appeal
In what became a classic statement of the proposition that religion shouldn’t matter in American politics, Kennedy told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960, “I believe in an America ….where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind…. I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

Kennedy said no public official should “accept instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source.”

When Kennedy spoke, the Supreme Court had not yet banned organized prayer in public schools and Christmas crèches in public squares. The court’s decisions legalizing abortion and sodomy — unimaginable in 1960 — were still years in the future.

Today, neither Bush nor Santorum would say they “accepted instructions” from the pope.

But this week’s celebration of John Paul II’s papacy and the Democrat’s post-mortem on the 2004 election amount to an acknowledgment that the pope’s teachings have had an influence on American politics, even if the prevailing secular trends for 30 years have decidedly gone against John Paul’s denunciations of abortion, euthanasia, cloning, materialism, and violence.

In 1960 the question was whether the Protestant majority would overcome residual suspicions of an insular Catholic minority, one dominated by an Irish-American church hierarchy.

Today, although the cardinals and archbishops still have Irish surnames —McCarrick, Mahony, and O'Malley — the Catholic population is decreasingly Irish-American and increasingly Latino.

The future of both the Republican Party and the Catholic Church in America hinges in large part on the nation's 37 million Latinos. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, by the second decade of this century, more than half of U.S. Catholics will likely be Latinos.

No one seems more aware of this than Bush.

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