Evangelicals Need to Take a Page from Roman Catholics (year 501)

Inspired by some minor reflections on personal identity and politics, I present recent findings on Roman Catholics and the 2016 Presidential election.

According to our May 2017 survey, just over three-quarters of American Catholics said that they voted in the November 2016 presidential election. Of those who voted, 43 percent said they voted for Trump while 48 percent said they voted for Clinton. The other nine percent voted for minority candidates. This is fewer Trump voters and more Clinton voters than the percentages among self-identified Catholics as reported in the exit polls, which reported 52 percent voting for Trump, 45 percent voting for Clinton, and 3 percent going to other candidates. But this survey took place six months after the election and some may have been recalling the candidate they wish they had voted for rather than their actual vote.

We began our 2017 survey with a series of questions about the possible role religious beliefs might have played among American Catholics In the 2016 election.

The responses of American Catholics to the questions cited in Table 1 make clear their assertion that their religious beliefs were not relevant to their vote for president in the 2016 election. The great majority (86 percent) said that religious beliefs (their own or that of the candidates) played no role in their vote. Just one in ten said that they voted for their candidate because of their own personal religious beliefs and even fewer — just 4 percent — said that they voted for their candidate because of the candidate’s religious beliefs.

Beliefs and values that are essential

That raised the question whether and to what extent did Catholics who voted for Trump differ in their religious beliefs and practices from Catholics who voted for Clinton. We have a standard block of questions about the beliefs and values that many consider essential to being a “good Catholic” that we have asked, in some form, on every survey since 1987. Table 2 compares the proportion of Trump and Clinton voters who say that each item is “essential to your vision of what it means to be Catholic.”

Catholics who supported Trump and Catholics who supported Clinton generally share very similar beliefs about how essential each of these items is to their vision of what it means to be Catholic. Differences of less than 10 percentage points between the two are not statistically significant. Both types of Catholic voters rank all ten items in virtually the same order.

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus, devotion to Mary as the Mother of God, and the papacy are essential to more than half of Trump voters and Clinton voters. Only about half saw charitable efforts to help the poor as essential and the percentage who saw the celibate male clergy as essential continues to have only a small percentage of support among either Trump or Clinton voters.

In other words, religion had little to do with the vote. That seems precisely what evangelicals should be doing. If you can segregate politics from faith, you don’t have the problem of evangelicals leaving the fold because of the movement’s political significance. Faith is one part of your life. Politics another.

Roman Catholics are doing it. Why can’t evangelicals?

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