Who Best Represents American Catholics?

Catholics are considered one of the most important swing groups in the country. Now, for the first time in history, both major political parties have Catholic vice presidential candidates. Guest host Viviana Hurtado discusses the Catholic voting bloc with pollster Robert Jones and conservative Catholic blogger Gayle Trotter.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we focus on the president's plan to allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people to stay and work legally in the U.S. Does it help or hurt the economy? We'll hear two sides in a few minutes.

But first, we take a look at the role of the Catholic vote in this year's presidential contest. Catholics make up one in four voters. They're considered one of the most important swing groups in the country. Now they're faced with a historic moment: both major party vice presidential candidates are Catholic.

For more on this crucial voting bloc we turn to Robert Jones. He heads the Public Religion Research Institute. That's a non-partisan group that focuses on religion, values, and public life. He joins us now. Welcome.

ROBERT JONES: Thanks. Glad to be here.

HURTADO: Glad to have you here, Robert. Why is the Catholic vote seen as a crucial piece of the puzzle for the election?

JONES: Well, you've named one. It is the single largest denomination, bar none, in the country. It makes up about one in four members of the population and also about one in four voters. The other reason it's important is that it has really become the quintessential religious swing group.

So since 1972 every candidate who has won the presidency has also won the Catholic vote - who has won the popular vote, I should say, has won the Catholic vote. So it has really become kind of a bellwether constituency for presidential candidates.

Also, one other reason is that Catholics are actually quite important in a number of battleground states, particularly Ohio and Pennsylvania.

HURTADO: And we talk about the Catholic vote but in fact there are a lot of dividing lines. Can you talk to us about some of these divisions? And some of them are ethnic.

JONES: Yeah, that's right. I often talk about there being two Catholic votes and this is especially true in the last couple of elections. So if we look back at the 2008 election, President Barack Obama won the Catholic votes, all Catholics, 54 percent to 45 percent. But that's hiding some real complexity underneath those numbers.

For example, he actually lost the white Catholic vote - 47 percent to 53 percent - while winning, overwhelmingly, the Latino Catholic vote - 73 percent to 27 percent. So as you can see, there are really some very different patterns underneath what looks like, you know, kind of a swing constituency, that's true, but what we really have is Latino Catholics leaning heavily Democratic, and really, white Catholics that are the group that is really divided and whose vote is really more up for grabs.

HURTADO: But speaking of polling, let's move on to, you know, some of these really good nuggets. When it comes to poverty and - versus issues, social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage - what can you tell us of what the polling says?

JONES: Well, again, there's a kind of very interesting picture here. So, for example, Catholics are very strong, Catholic social teaching and teachings about social justice have a long, you know, more than a hundred-year tradition and we see that still reflected today in many things around the budget and around things that should be cut.

So, for example, 65 percent of Catholics oppose cutting federal funding for social programs that help the poor in order to reduce the deficit. Nearly three-quarters of Catholics believe that to shrink the deficit the government should raise taxes on Americans making more than a million dollars a year.

And in a big picture kind of question, just to kind of round this out, nearly seven in 10 Catholics, 69 percent, believe that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. So that's on the economic side.

On, kind of, cultural issues among Catholics, Catholics look about like the general population do on the issue of abortion. They're about equally divided with a slight lean toward wanting abortion to be legal in all or most cases, but with significant numbers - nearly half - saying that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

On the issue of same-sex marriage there's been a little bit of a shift, so that now what we're seeing is Catholics in slim majority territory, supporting same-sex marriage.

HURTADO: And speaking of abortion, that leads me to the next question which is the new health care law. Part of it says that most religious institutions have to offer coverage that gives contraception and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has made this a major point at issue with the Obama administration, now, for months. So can you tell us, Robbie, how is this issue playing out with people in the pews?

JONES: Yeah. Well, it's very clear that the bishops have made this a real sticking point with the administration, as has the Romney campaign. And what's really at stake here is the issue of religious liberty, that the requirement to require employers to offer contraception as part of their insurance plans at no cost to their employees, they're saying is an infringement of religious liberty for those religiously affiliated institutions that have moral or religious objections to contraception.

What's interesting here is that the bishops are in a little bit of a different place than rank and file Catholics. For example, we just asked, you know, do you believe that religious liberty is being threatened in America today? Like most Americans, 57 percent of Catholics say they do not believe that religious liberty is being threatened today.

And even when we asked an open-ended question of the minority of people who said they do believe religious liberty is under attack and we said, well, tell us how; what we hear from them is only about one in 10, 11 percent of Catholics and only about six percent of the public name anything around the contraception mandate as a reason that religious liberty is being threatened today.

So the campaign that the bishops are running is a little bit different to where Catholics overall are. When we ask about the specific policy, we find about six in 10 Catholics, overall, do support the administration's position that religiously affiliated social service agencies and colleges and hospitals should be required to provide health care plans that provide contraception at no cost.

The caveat here is that white Catholics are more divided on this question. So Latino Catholics more supportive, white Catholics nearly evenly divided on this question of whether this is a good policy or not.

HURTADO: Robert Jones heads the group Public Religion Research Institute. That's a non-partisan organization that focuses on the intersection of religion, values, and public life. He joins us in our NPR studios in Washington. Thank you.

JONES: Thank you.

HURTADO: Now for another perspective about Catholic voters, we're joined by Gayle Trotter. She's a lawyer, mother of six, and conservative blogger. She's written for the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog and for Belief Net. Gayle Trotter, welcome.

GAYLE TROTTER: Thank you for having me.

HURTADO: We just heard from Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, and his research found that Catholic voters are largely driven by economic issues. So what do you think about that?

TROTTER: I think that's true. I think Catholic voters are not any different than any American in this election, looking at the economy and religious liberty as well. And the reason that traditional Catholics and moderate Catholics are excited about Ryan being put on this ticket is because Ryan joins a ticket that was already really committed to preserving the role of religion and faith in public life.

JONES: And he, being young, handsome, with a beautiful wife and adorable children, is a great advocate for these two issues in particular. Traditional and moderate Catholics love his courage. He stepped out there with a budget plan as the head of the Budget Committee in the House and he put something out there for people to discuss.

The details can change subject to compromise in the Congress, but he stepped out in this difficult situation knowing that the economy is the real existential threat to our society and to our way of life. So that's something that, not only Catholic voters care about, but all American voters.

HURTADO: And for you going ahead in this election, what are the issues that are most important?

TROTTER: You brought up the HHS mandate and it has been framed as a way to get contraceptive access for women, and in reality it's not just contraception - it's also abortion-inducing drugs that are covered, and sterilization. And one of the first things that comes to mind about the identify of...

HURTADO: And it's the morning-after pill. Correct, Gayle?

TROTTER: Yes. Yes.

HURTADO: OK.

TROTTER: One of the first things you think about Catholic identity is that, obviously the Catholic Church does not support abortion and has very many ministries and funds and personal commitments allocated to helping women who find themselves in these crisis pregnancies.

So to require, not only Catholic institutions that are affiliated, but also evangelical groups like an evangelical college in Colorado and Wheaton College - they don't share the Catholic position on contraception but they do share it on these other issues - it's not just a Catholic issue, but Catholics feel very strongly about it.

HURTADO: Just last week on this program we heard from Sister Simone Campbell. She's the head of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby. And Gayle, her organization opposes cuts to social programs like food stamps and Medicaid. Let's listen to part of what she had to say.

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: Everybody needs to be involved in solving this. It has to be business, government, individuals, families, rich people, poor people. Everybody has to work together. That's what democracy is about.

HURTADO: Sister Simone said that personal responsibility isn't enough from a political or spiritual perspective to address the needs of the poor. So, Gayle, what do you think about that?

TROTTER: It's really a question of - we all share this commitment to helping the poor, and Catholics, especially. Neither party owns social justice. And, in looking at this, you look at Bill Clinton. When he advocated welfare reform in his presidency, no one accused him of wanting to harm the poor, and he said that the era of big government is over. That's the same with Ryan in advocating these things.

HURTADO: But a lot of people accused Bill Clinton of wanting to hurt the poor with his reforms.

TROTTER: I would say not in the mainstream. I mean, people from his own party were supporting the welfare reform because they understood that government can create programs to help people, but it should be a last resort, not the first resort.

And same with Obama. When he had his inaugural address, he said the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works. And that's all Ryan is doing. So it's the same idea to try and help the poor, but it's a question of what works.

HURTADO: So how do you square that the U.S. bishops have said that Paul Ryan's proposed cuts to the social safety net programs fail a, quote, "basic moral test"? I mean, how do you reconcile your support for Ryan with what the bishops have repeatedly said about his budget plan?

TROTTER: Well, his own bishop said Congressman Ryan has made his prudential judgment about how best to serve the long-term needs of the poor, and he's done that in accord with Catholic principles. That's his own bishop saying that.

HURTADO: Paul Ryan is the second Catholic to be named vice president on the GOP ticket. What do you think about Mitt Romney's choice to pick him?

TROTTER: Traditional Catholics who were already supporting Romney are just even more inspired by his pick of Ryan, and I think Ryan is the best advocate for getting these two messages out there about how important the economic security of our country is, and also the religious liberty issue.

HURTADO: You said traditional Catholics. How about all the other Catholics?

TROTTER: I think the moderate Catholics will be energized because he's such a good spokesman. And I think a lot of the issue with the contraceptive abortion-inducing drug and sterilization mandate, he will be able to get out there and express it in ways that have not been expressed before, and same with the fiscal cliff that we face.

HURTADO: Gayle Trotter is a lawyer, a mother of six and a Catholic blogger. She's written for the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog and for Beliefnet. She joined us in our Washington studios. Thank you.

TROTTER: Thank you.

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