George W. Bush was the first sitting president to attend a papal funeral. President Carter sent his mother to Pope John Paul I's 1978 funeral. Such symbolic change speaks volumes about the evolution in Catholic America's voting habits over the past quarter-century and about Pope John Paul II's role in that conversion.
John Paul II's influence is particularly striking considering Catholic America's checkered political past. In 1928, Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith suffered electorally for his Catholicism. Many non-Catholic voters assumed that, once in the Oval Office, Smith's loyalty to the Constitution would take a back seat to his loyalty to Rome. John F. Kennedy was narrowly elected president in 1960 on the back of 83 percent of all Catholic votes cast -- votes that overwhelmed residual non-Catholic fear of papal influence within the White House.
Catholic voting habits began to shift less than a generation ago. Through the 1960s, Catholics formed one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs. However, by 1972, cultural upheaval produced then-uncommon Catholic support for a Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon. The trend away from the Democrats has largely continued for three decades.
Pope John Paul II exerted considerable direct and indirect influence upon this electoral shift. This reflected, in part, his sky-high favorability rating among American Catholics, ratings that consistently hovered around 90 percent. The pope also continued a tradition, dating to the 1930s, whereby the Catholic Church sought to influence U.S. government policy and political debate, a development reinforced by the Second Vatican Council of the early-to-mid-1960s.
Until fairly recently, the Catholic Church, principally through the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, sought greater government involvement in the economy and higher government spending on social programs. Although he shared the NCCB's antipathy to the free market, John Paul II also played a significant role in converting many conservative Catholics into reliable Republican voters.
Inspired by the pope's political assertiveness, American Catholic leaders became increasingly active on social issues. Church leaders utilized the political communications tools at their disposal, namely the hundreds of Catholic publications and diocesan newsletters (with combined circulation in the tens of millions), in tandem with concerted congressional lobbying campaigns, and the tacit endorsement of individual parishes being mobilized for conservative political purposes.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, the NCCB published a pro-life guide to the election that drew heavily upon John Paul II's writings. Some Church leaders asserted that Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) should be denied communion because he is pro-choice. Whereas JFK was viewed in some quarters as too Catholic, Kerry was deemed insufficiently Catholic on issues critical to conservatives.
This sea change demonstrated that the contemporary Catholic vote is now the most important swing vote in American politics. In the modern era, Catholics are the bellwether voters: as go Catholics, so goes the nation. Since 1972, they have always cast their votes for the popular vote winner.
Hence, the Republican Party's "Catholic Strategy." Bush strategist Karl Rove identified the Catholic vote as central to his long-term plan to convert swathes of traditional Democratic voters, thereby transforming the Republicans into the majority party. Throughout the 2004 campaign, Rove maintained that, if Bush won the Catholic vote, he would be reelected. Rove was right.
Rove sought to turn out several million additional Catholic voters. Last year, Catholic turnout was 63 percent, up from 57 percent four years earlier, and constituted more than one-in-four voters nationwide, voters disproportionately distributed in key battleground states such as Ohio and Florida. Bush, a Methodist, impressively won 52 percent of the Catholic vote versus 47 percent for John Kerry, only the third Catholic to win a major party's presidential nomination. Only one Democrat since 1952 (Walter Mondale in 1984) had previously lost the Catholic vote by such a margin.
Bush's lead among religiously active Catholics grew from nine points in 2000 to 13 points in 2004. Among white, non-Hispanic Catholics (one in five voters), Bush went from a seven point lead in 2000 to a 13 point lead four years later. Among Hispanic Catholics, the Democratic candidate's lead shrank from 32 to 19 points. Bush won 54 percent of Catholic votes in Ohio and 57 percent of Catholic votes in Florida.
However, the American population is trending toward less religious observance, not more, and liberals attend church far less frequently than conservatives. Given this reality, how did the Republican campaign successfully bring the pope into electoral play?
As president, Bush adroitly employed networking, symbolism, and substance to maximum effect. Upon inauguration, Bush began regular networking meetings with a conservative Catholic advisory group and his campaign later benefited from the support of well-funded conservative Catholic political action committees. Symbolically, Bush gave the 2001 commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. As president, Bush never ceased to court the pope, meeting with him several times, liberally quoting his words, and awarding him the Medal of Freedom.
Substantively, Bush emphasized the issues upon which Pope John Paul II and he agreed, going so far as to borrow the pope's "culture of life" sound bite to refer broadly to socially conservative positions on abortion, euthanasia, and marriage. Of course, the pope and the president disagreed vehemently on Iraq, the death penalty, and many aspects of economic policy. John Paul II once argued that "savage capitalism" is little better than "savage Marxism."
Bush astutely chose to ignore such serious cleavages, emphasizing the pope's socially conservative side. Conservative Catholic leaders were emboldened by the pope's lead on social issues and, in turn, they encouraged traditionalist Catholics to support Bush and fellow socially conservative Republicans.