Catholics increase their role on Hill -- in GOP

Since the purpose of this blog is to look at mainstream coverage of religion news, you would think we would spend quite a bit of time dissecting the coverage of mainstream print's only wire service dedicated to covering religion. Makes sense, right? That would be the Religion News Service, or RNS, now operated by Newhouse. But there are several problems. Since the goal of this wire service is to sell its copy, its website does not offer a quick and easy way to link to many or even most of its stories. But the bigger problem is that many American newspapers do not post the texts -- with URLs -- of the wire service reports they run. As a result, RNS copy may run in many newspapers, but often it is hard to find a solid, full-text version of any given report that you can link to online. Perhaps the best place to find RNS copy is Beliefnet's news pages.

Anyway, the folks at the Pew Forum's religion news project recently pointed out an RNS story by reporter Kevin Eckstrom that noted a quiet, but very significant, story that I don't think I have seen anywhere else. It is, in a way, hooked into that comment by White House scribe Michael Gerson about the tensions, in the modern GOP, between a Libertarian stance and one rooted in a more Catholic, with a big C, approach to public life.

It seems likely that similar tensions may emerge on Capitol Hill. Why? Here is the key stuff:

There are 154 Catholics in the new Congress -- an all-time high -- including 87 Democrats and 67 Republicans. While Democrats hold their traditional lead among Catholics, Republicans are gaining, with two-thirds of new Catholic members coming from the GOP.

Political observers say party and ideology usually trump religious affiliation in casting votes, but they agree the numbers reflect a Catholic drift toward the Republican Party -- a trend that could impact debate on hot-button social issues like abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage. They are members like Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican who holds a theology degree from the Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), and Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana convert from Hinduism who is also the second Indian-American member of Congress.

"The church is bigger than any one political movement or party," said Jindal, who succeeded Republican David Vitter, a Catholic who moved to the Senate. "It's a healthy thing that there are Catholics on both sides of the aisle."

Eckstrom reports that one-quarter of Republican members are Catholic, compared to about one-third of Democrats. On the national level, Catholics are now evenly split three ways between independents and the two parties. No surprise: the GOP numbers are rising among the new Catholics of the Bible Belt and among more conservative Catholics who support the church's teachings on hot button issues such as abortion and the sacrament of marriage.

On one level, this is another part of the whole "pew gap" story. But I have a hunch that pollsters could add one more question and find some interesting info linked to this. In the 2005 election, someone needs to ask Catholics how often they go to confession -- then chart that next to their votes. Anyone what to predict what they will find?

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