A new poll from the Pew Research Center shows that Catholics are strongly supporting President Barack Obama in the coming election. Obama leads his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, by a significant margin, 54-39 percent -- a 15 percent lead for the president. This is up from a slim two percent margin in favor of President Obama in a similar poll in June.
A lot has happened since June. On the Catholic front, in between those two polls, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) organized a major campaign, the Fortnight for Freedom, from June 21 to July 4, trying to draw attention to alleged violations of religious freedom in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. During the Fortnight, the USCCB characterized the requirement that employee insurance plans must cover preventive medications, including birth control, as an affront to American Catholics.
But the bishops' protest has not done much to unite Catholics behind this latest crusade against women's health and rights in this country. Among Catholics who heard about the bishops' protest and disagree with them, 78 percent support President Obama. Putting that together with this week's polling leads one to speculate that not only isn't the bishops' campaign working -- it's backfiring.
The 2012 election is the first time that both presidential tickets feature a Catholic candidate. This led many to speculate that the mythical, courted, supposedly monolithic Catholic vote was going to be an even bigger factor than before. However, the reality is that the Catholic vote has mirrored the popular vote in almost all of the presidential elections since President Nixon was in office. Despite this evidence, there is a presumption that Catholic voters are particularly conservative on social issues, and that their religion and the views of their religious leaders play an important role in Catholics' political decisions. This couldn't be further from the truth.
On Election Day, Catholic voters won't walk in lockstep with bishops -- and a majority of Catholics think the bishops should stay out of politicking. Survey data from 2004 and 2008 confirms that while the bishops emphasized their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, Catholics focused on other issues. Seventy percent of Catholic voters say that the views of the U.S. Catholic bishops are unimportant to them in deciding for whom to vote. And a similarly large proportion, 73 percent, says they believe Catholic politicians are under no religious obligation to vote on issues the way the bishops recommend.
Catholic voters want the president to focus on improving the economy, creating jobs and ensuring that the nation's social safety net is protected. These are the same things that are important to most Americans, and the issues that should be driving decisions in the coming election. Catholics know what's at stake, and they're making up their own minds despite the influence the bishops claim, or the relative importance the hierarchy's influence and divisive campaigns garner in the media.
On a range of issues, the influence of the bishops over Catholics in America has been diminishing. According to a series of reports published by the National Catholic Reporter, Catholics have decided to follow their own consciences when deciding about moral issues. In 1987, about a third of Catholics said that church leaders should have the final say on what is right or wrong when it comes to abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality. By 2011, this percentage had dropped to just around 2 in 10 Catholics. The percentage of Catholics who say church leaders should have the final say on contraception has consistently hovered around just 10 percent. The percentage of Catholics who follow the bishops' ban on contraception is arguably much smaller even than that.
Perhaps of special concern to the bishops, polling on abortion shows that it is simply not a top political issue for Catholics. In a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, Catholic adults ranked abortion (43 percent very important) far below other issues, such as the economy (92 percent very important), jobs (91 percent) and immigration (60 percent), in terms of their importance in the Congressional elections.
The preponderance of evidence is that Catholics do not follow the wishes or dictates of their bishops when it comes to their own personal lives or the ballot box. Despite the millions of dollars spent by the bishops, the call to arms for Catholics to defend the bishops' skewed concept of religious freedom is not a hot topic in this election. On November 6, 2012, Catholics will represent about 27 percent of the electorate. The active U.S. bishops are worth about 270 votes. The 35 million other Catholic voters in the U.S. will follow our consciences as we have always done and vote accordingly.