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Bishops winning support, Obama winning votes in fight for Catholics

August 01, 2012|By Mitchell Landsberg
  • Supporters cheer as the US President Obama delivers remarks at a campaign event in Akron, Ohio.
Supporters cheer as the US President Obama delivers remarks at a campaign… (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images )

The intersection of politics and religion can sometimes resemble one of those spaghetti freeway interchanges. Cars go in and cars go out, but not always in ways you might expect.

Take the recent case of the fight between President Obama and the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. A new poll has found that Catholics who are familiar with the issue tend to side overwhelmingly with the bishops. That is, they agree that the Obama administration is threatening their religious liberty by mandating that some church-affiliated institutions, such as schools and hospitals, provide free contraceptive services to their employees, in violation of church teachings.

So Obama must be in trouble with Catholic voters, right?

Well, no.

Actually, after an initial dip, Catholic support for Obama has been steadily rising for the last several months as the bishops have strenuously pressed their case against the president’s policy, according to the poll released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The poll release was timed to coincide with the contraception mandate, which went into effect Wednesday.

Catholic support has shifted from Obama to Republican challenger Mitt Romney and back to Obama since January, when the issue first flared into public view. In April, Romney led Obama among Catholic voters, 50% to 45%, according to Pew. By the most recent poll, conducted in late June and early July, Obama led 51% to 42% (meaning that Romney had fallen even farther than Obama had climbed).

Importantly, those figures are for all Catholic voters. Among Catholic voters who were aware of the bishops’ concerns over religious liberty and agreed with them, Romney holds a commanding lead, 60% to 34%. But those tend to be the most conservative Catholics, who may have supported Romney anyway.

The poll offered some other interesting insights into the views of American Catholics, who comprise one of the largest religious voting blocs and have been an important swing vote in recent presidential elections.

While many Catholics agree with the bishops in the contraception fight, the bishops are not the most popular figures in the church. That title would go to American nuns — who have had their own battle with the Catholic hierarchy lately. Eighty percent of Catholics say they are “satisfied” with the leadership of the nuns, while 70% are satisfied with the American bishops and 74% with Pope Benedict XVI. That represents a significant improvement for the bishops – up from 51% a decade ago, at the height of the church’s sex abuse scandal.

The poll was conducted among 619 randomly selected Catholic adults, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.

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