Every US presidential election since 2004 has featured at least one Catholic candidate on one of the party’s main tickets. But if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins in November, he will be just the second Catholic to hold the country’s highest office; John F. Kennedy was the first with a revolutionary victory in 1960.
Biden speaks openly about his personal beliefs during the election campaign, and his faith was a central theme at the recent Democratic National Convention. However, having a Catholic candidate on a party ticket does not guarantee support from Catholic voters. American Catholics, who make up about a fifth of the population, hold a wide range of political opinions, even on matters on which the Catholic Church has taken a clear stand.
Here are eight facts about Catholics and politics in the United States, based on previously published studies from the Pew Research Center.
See also: Like Americans as a whole, American Catholics are heavily divided by party
American Catholics are politically divided in the middle. About half of registered Catholic voters (48%) describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party, while roughly the same proportion (47%) identify or lean toward the Democratic Party, according to Pew Research Center surveys in 2018 and 2019.
In the recent presidential elections, Catholic voters have moved back and forth between Republican and Democratic candidates. In 2016, 52% of Catholics backed Republican Donald Trump while 44% voted Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to a Pew Research Center survey of validated voters (i.e. members of the Trends Panel American representative of centers at the national level that have been mapped to electoral rolls). . Catholics also strongly supported Republican George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry in 2004, according to polls.
Catholics chose Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain in 2008 by a margin of 54% to 45%, and cut their votes almost exactly in half in 2012 (when Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney) and 2000 (when Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore).
White and Hispanic Catholics are very different politically. Nearly six in ten (57%) registered White Catholic voters identify with or lean towards the Republican Party, marking a big change since 2008, when four in ten (41%) backed the GOP. Most Hispanic Catholic voters (68%), meanwhile, identify as Democrats or Skinny Democrats, a share that has remained fairly stable over the past decade. (Two-thirds of registered Catholic voters are white, while a quarter are Hispanic, according to data collected in 2018 and 2019.)
Catholics’ views on Trump are clearly divided by race and ethnicity. In a poll conducted in late July and early August amid soaring coronavirus cases in the United States, 54% of white Catholics overall said they approved of Trump’s performance as president, but 69% of Hispanic Catholics said they disapprove of the way he does his job. And 59% of registered White Catholic voters said they would vote for Trump, or look that way, if the election was held today; among registered Hispanic Catholic voters, 65% said they would vote for Biden today. There was a similar divide in the last presidential election: 64 percent of white Catholics voted for Trump in 2016, according to a Pew Research Center survey of validated voters at the time, while 78 percent of Hispanic Catholics voted voted for Clinton.
When it comes to specific political issues, Catholics are often more aligned with their political party than with the teachings of their church. When it comes to abortion, for example, 77% of adult Democrats and Democrats say they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 63% of Republican-leaning Catholics and Republican say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a 2019 survey. This divide exists despite the Catholic Church’s formal opposition to abortion.
When it comes to immigration, 91% of Catholic Democrats oppose expanding the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, while 81% of Catholic Republicans are in favor of expanding the wall, according to a separate 2019 survey. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned Trump’s plan to build such a wall, and Pope Francis described the desire to build a border wall as not being Christian.
These differences reflect a general political polarization among the American public.
Catholics, like members of many other religious groups, don’t necessarily look for a president who shares their religious beliefs, but they want a president who leads a moral and ethical life. About six in ten Catholics (62%) say it is very important to them to have a president who personally leads a moral and ethical life, and this view is shared by similar shares of white and Hispanic Catholics, according to February 2020. survey. Only 14% of Catholics say it’s very important for them to have a president who shares their own religious beliefs, although Hispanic Catholics are about twice as likely as White Catholics to say so (22% vs. 9% ).
Catholics view religious organizations as forces for good in society, but a clear majority say churches and other religious organizations should stay away from politics. About six in ten Catholics (62%) say American churches and other places of worship should stay away from politics, while 37% say churches should voice their views on everyday social and political issues , according to a 2019 survey. About three-quarters of American Catholics (76%) say churches should not approve candidates for elected office.
Partisanship colors Catholics’ perceptions of Trump and Biden’s religion. Overall, about six in ten Catholics (59%) say they think Biden is very or somewhat religious, according to a February 2020 survey. White and Hispanic Catholics express similar views about the religion of the Bidens, but Catholic Democrats (72%) are much more likely than Republican Catholics (46%) to say he is at least somewhat religious.
Far fewer Catholics overall (37%) say Trump is at least somewhat religious, although the gap between Republicans and Democrats on this issue is huge (63% vs. 10%).
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