Catholics make up the largest single religious denomination--65 million--of any kind in this country. They also make up one-third of the electorate in a presidential election, approximately 30 million. Yet in more than 200 years, a Catholic priest has never served as chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In December, an 18-member bipartisan committee verbally expressed a preference for Father Timothy O'Brien, a political science professor at Marquette University, for the job of House chaplain. Yet when Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt met to decide who to nominate as chaplain, they chose a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Charles Wright, over O'Brien. There were charges of anti-Catholic bigotry, and when Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a highly respected Catholic, raised the same question, Catholics took notice.
This controversy comes at an awkward moment for the GOP. Leading presidential contender George W. Bush has demonstrated a strong pull on the decisive Catholic swing vote. Our Crisis magazine polling indicates that up to 40% of the Catholic vote--12 million--can shift parties in presidential elections. The Democrats would like nothing better than to undercut Bush's appeal by adding anti-Catholic prejudice to the list of moral complaints they aim at Republican conservatives.
The full House will vote on Wright later this month, and the Democrats appear ready to contest it. If they raise the issue of anti-Catholicism on the House floor, they will be touching a deep nerve among this nation's Catholics.
The Democratic Party was the traditional home for most Catholics until the late 1960s, when a slow migration into the conservative movement and the Republican Party began. Today, Catholics make up the largest single Republican constituency, about 31% of the party. Yet the size of the remaining swing vote indicates hesitation and discomfort about the fit of Catholics into the GOP. Our research indicates that Catholics who are in basic agreement with the conservative social values of the GOP often are turned off by the harshness of Republican rhetoric, a preoccupation with economic matters and vituperative attacks on government programs aimed at the needy. In short, Catholics remain unconvinced of Republican compassion.
The selection of the House chaplain gave Republicans an opportunity to reach out to Catholics and to refashion the image of a party frequently portrayed as in the clutches of the religious right. Instead, the House leadership provided Democrats their opportunity to begin recapturing a generation of Catholics grown accustomed to voting for the Republican Party. Democrats can paint a picture of a WASPy party hopelessly out of touch with--even intolerant of--this nation's religious diversity.
Democrats won't find it hard to persuade such old Catholic left-wingers as Father Andrew Greeley, who recently opined on CBS' "The Early Show," that any Catholic who is a Republican is "probably" in a state of mortal sin. When host Bryant Gumbel expressed disbelief, Greeley explained: "Republicans tend to be the party of the affluent, the self-righteous, the haters and racists." Extreme as it may be, this attitude pervades a significant minority of Catholic voters and tinges the fears of the Catholic swing vote.
In a Jan. 3 letter to William A. Donohue, president of the 350,000-member Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Armey explained that his decision to vote for Wright over O'Brien was because of "Wright's interpersonal skills and pastoral experiences" versus O'Brien's 22 years as a professor of political science. As Armey told me, he never focused on the denominational ties of the three candidates but on their qualifications to be a pastor to House members.
The political turmoil and Catholic backlash following the selection of Wright came as a surprise to the House leadership. It shouldn't have. The GOP has gradually become the home of more Catholic voters whose social conservatism is closely intertwined with their Catholic identity. The voter concerns that bring Catholics closer to the GOP are directly connected to issues informed by their Catholic faith. This includes not only the defense of life but also the general social decay caused by the decline in morality.
The blunder of the GOP leadership was not the result of anti-Catholic prejudice, but of lack of awareness of where Catholic voters are moving and why. Armey's deliberate inattention to the religious affiliation of the three candidates tells the story. The GOP doesn't need to examine its conscience, but rather to start doing its homework on Catholic America.