Laura R. Olson is professor of political science and director of the Ph.D. program in policy studies at Clemson University. She has been president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, as well as editor-in-chief of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Her research focuses on contemporary religion and politics with emphases on public opinion and civic engagement. Olson is author of nine books, including Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices (2018).
In 2015, the Pew Research Center’s religion experts contended that in addition to the 20% of Americans who explicitly identify as Catholic, another 25% have looser ties to Catholicism. About a third of these individuals are what Pew terms “cultural Catholics.” Some cultural Catholics identify with a faith other than Catholicism; others claim no religious affiliation at all. None, however, “consider themselves Catholic or [even] partially Catholic.”
Polls are not poised (or designed) to tell us how these “cultural Catholics” might vote next month. However, this portion of the U.S. electorate—roughly 8% in total, and 13% of Latinx Americans—has much to teach us about Catholicism’s complex relevance to electoral politics today.
Who Are Cultural Catholics?
The most important thing to know about cultural Catholics is that 43% say they could see themselves joining or rejoining the Church in the future. A third already attend Mass at least once a year, and four-in-ten would want to receive the anointing of the sick if they were seriously ill. They skew young and are ethnically diverse.
The root of cultural Catholics’ political consequence lies in their progressivism. Pew’s analysis shows that they reject traditional thinking about family structure and sexuality. They rank “working to help the poor and needy” among the two most essential aspects of being Catholic, and they hold overwhelmingly positive opinions of Pope Francis. Most would also support seismic changes in Church teachings and policies. For example, 83% think priests should be permitted to marry, and 77% say women should be allowed to become priests. In short, they are open-minded advocates of an inclusive Church for the twenty-first century.
And what about partisanship? My own analysis of the 2015 Pew data reveals that only a third of cultural Catholics are Republicans.
The existence of this cadre of potential Catholics should raise the antennae of Church leaders; likewise, cultural Catholics’ progressivism should attract the attention of the Democratic Party.
The Church in Decline
The Catholic Church is in steeper decline than any other religious tradition in the United States. No single factor on its own can explain why Americans are leaving the Church, but the continuing impact of the sexual abuse scandal has deepened a longstanding crisis of leadership within the Church. For decades, the United States has had far too few priests to go around, and that shortage has grown more dire than ever before. Moreover, Catholics are much more likely than other Americans to feel distrustful of and distant from clergy. In 2019, just 8% said they “feel very close” to their priests, and almost two-in-five said they are “not close.” Non-white Catholics appear especially likely to perceive Church leaders as out of touch, particularly those clergy who lift up opposition to abortion as the topmost political priority.
Cultural Catholics are unlikely to gravitate toward a Church whose priests lack the time and space to attend to individuals’ day-to-day needs. Nor are they likely to be compelled by national leaders who resist institutional change and deemphasize the more politically progressive elements of Catholic social teaching. And perpetuating a message that Catholics “cannot” be Democrats hardly serves to roll out the red carpet.
Party Surpasses Church
As we know, there is no longer any semblance of a “Catholic vote.” The U.S. Catholic population today is as diverse in its partisanship as is the country at large. The emergence of this partisan diversity reflects the socioeconomic success that became available to white Catholics thanks in large part to assimilation and tight immigration restrictions between 1924 and 1965. Few new Catholic immigrants arrived in the United States during that period, which decreased the stigma attached to the faith. Today, Latinx immigrants face myriad challenges and injustices, but anti-Catholicism is not at the top of the list. The political significance of being generically Catholic is a thing of the past. Party identification is a much more important dividing point than religious affiliation is for views on political issues and vote choice, as John Kerry learned the hard way in 2004.
Joe Biden’s campaign, however, is taking a savvy, nuanced approach to wooing voters who have connections to the Catholic faith. He has little chance of winning over the most observant white Catholics, who tend to be conservative Republicans and moral traditionalists. Working on the other side of the ideological divide within the Church, Biden seems to have targeted three other groups of his fellow believers—less-observant Catholics, Latinx Catholics, and cultural Catholics—“who, like him, stress other aspects of Catholic social teaching that focus on caring for the poor and vulnerable…. [and] do not vote solely on the issue of abortion.”
This strategy seems to be working. New data from the Public Religion Research Institute show that Catholics rate Biden much higher than Trump for “modeling religious values with his actions and leadership”—a gap that is especially sizable among Latinx Catholics. Some polls even suggest that by September, Biden had opened a small lead among White Catholics while maintaining his substantial advantage among their Latinx counterparts. At a bare minimum, he has closed the gap with Trump, and he has done it by emphasizing life-affirming themes of Catholic social teaching other than opposition to abortion.
I see some evidence that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Biden campaign are learning from each other. As usual, abortion features in the USCCB’s election-year document interpreting how Catholics should “faithfully” approach voting. However, the bishops dedicate much more space to a range of matters posing “serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.” They also point out “a great need for leadership that models…the virtues of justice, prudence, courage, and temperance.”
If Biden becomes president, and makes strides toward bringing dignity and justice to those who sorely lack them, and restores civility to the public square, he might not just transform the political climate. He might also become a model of inclusive, twenty-first-century Catholic leadership that could attract cultural Catholics into the flock.