Sigh: Another 'Catholic voter' story

CatholicsAbortionPelosiIt's time to head back into the tmatt GetReligion folder of guilt. To make matters worse, this is an example of a GetReligion theme that we keep trumpeting, like a call to battle. The fact that it's something we say all the time, however, is evidence that it's a journalistic sin that we keep seeing all of the time. As you may have noticed, the mainstream press has finally noticed that there are still traditional Catholics in the Democratic Party who are opposed to abortion, as is their church. There are also other Democrats -- lots of them, actually -- who support abortion rights, but do not believe that abortions should be funded with tax dollars.

So Catholics are suddenly getting lots of analog and digital ink, when it comes to the health-care wars. Which leads us to a story the other day (one of many containing similar material) in The Politico, where we read:

By teeing up a public battle over abortion in the health care bill now before the Senate, congressional Democrats could be risking more than just the fate of the legislation.

Hanging in the balance are millions of Catholic swing voters who moved decisively to the Democrats in 2008 and who could shift away just as readily in 2010. According to exit polls, President Barack Obama won the support of 53 percent of Catholic voters, a seven-point increase over the showing of the Democrats' 2004 nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a Catholic. Among Latino Catholics, who are often more conservative than their white counterparts on social issues, Obama did even better, winning more than two-thirds of their support, a 14-point improvement over Kerry's totals, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.

Those gains will be at risk if a polarizing abortion fight takes place in the Senate.

"There could be political repercussions in the election. It could be harder for the Democrats to keep those Catholics voters they gained and they may put some of their members at risk," said John Green, a religion and politics expert at the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron. Moreover, said Green, Catholics are a constituency that backs the reform effort itself. "To alienate them on abortion could be to alienate them on health care reform," he said.

Now, no one on planet earth knows these numbers better than Green, a quote-machine who is worthy of all the telephone calls that he receives from reporters (me included). And the sage of Akron, I think, would be join me in noting that these kinds of discussions of "Catholic voters" are way too simplistic.

After all, before the last election, I heard him offer a great one-liner in a seminar on religion and politics here inside the Beltway. There are times, Green said, when he is tempted to believe that "all of American politics has boiled down to Catholics in the state of Ohio who go to Mass once a month instead of once a week."

In other words, there are Catholic voters and then there are Catholic voters and religious practice has a lot to do with who is who and how they usually vote.

So, one more time, here is GetReligion's typology on four of the niches that can be found inside that meaningless "Catholic voters" label. Please pay attention, because the future of American health care will, in large part, depend on this:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. Cultural conservatives have no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This group may provide some of those all-important "undecided swing voters depending on what's happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. This group leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. These are the Catholic voters who are really up for grabs -- the true swing voters.

* The "sweats the details" Catholic, the kind who regularly goes confession, is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

So, who is this Politico story actually about? Who are the U.S. bishops hearing from? Which Catholic voters are leaning which way when it comes to health care?

In other words, religion remains a major part of this story. Saying the "Catholic voters" are involved tells us next to nothing.

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