Same as it ever was: Is Donald Trump beating the pope and winning GOP 'Catholic' voters?

The GOP establishment panic continues, with the political powers that be desperately working to kick their #NeverTrump campaign into a higher gear.

What remains interesting to me (click here for previous post), is the degree to which the stop-Donald Trump movement appears, in mainstream media coverage, to be totally secular -- as in this new Washington Post feature -- while the TV chatter on primary nights almost always involves talk about crucial groups of voters who are defined, in part, by religion.

Yes, I am talking about the old, old "Trump is winning the 'evangelical' vote" story that has been popular since the start of the White House campaign.

But there is more to this emerging religion-angle story than that. The other day, a prominent pack of 40 Catholic conservatives opened fire on Citizen Trump in a letter published by National Review. The Religion News Service story on this development reported:

Robert P. George, of Princeton University and George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, headed the charge, and the appeal was also signed by opinion leaders from academia and religious media.
The letter denounces Trump for “vulgarity, oafishness, shocking ignorance, and -- we do not hesitate to use the word -- demagoguery.” Worse, they wrote, he’s the opposite of what Catholics should seek in a leader.

Later in this piece there was some crucial information that would appear to link this "Catholic voter" issue with the gaping hole in much of the news media coverage of the "evangelical voters." Only this time around, Trump numbers are even larger.

Ahead of Tuesday’s Michigan primary, a new Fox News-funded pre-election poll of likely Republican voters showed the New York billionaire was a popular choice among Catholic voters.
Trump’s recent kerfuffle with Pope Francis (who called the candidate’s stance on immigration “not Christian”) has not dissuaded Catholics. According to the poll, Trump, with 52 percent of Catholic voters, leads Sen. Marco Rubio (16 percent) Ohio Gov. John Kasich (14 percent) and Sen. Tex Cruz (11 percent) with Catholics.

Did this pattern hold in other primaries? Clearly, we should start seeing giant headlines proclaiming, "Catholic voters choosing Trump over Pope Francis."

Actually, I would argue that these alleged Catholic numbers represent the same "evangelical voters" reality that your GetReligionistas have been talking about for months. These numbers are meaningless without additional information -- especially about matters of doctrine and church attendance.

Once again, let me point journalists and other GetReligion readers toward the excellent Christianity Today essay on this topic by the Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and LifeWay Research leader Ed Stetzer. It notes:

Researchers look at three factors when studying religious groups. Known as the three Bs, they are belief, behavior, and belonging. In order to understand any religious group, you have to consider all three.
Yet most public polling on evangelicals has focused only on belonging, asking people to identify with a specific faith tradition. In some cases, people are asked to identify themselves in basic categories like Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, and so on. Other polls ask people to use labels like “evangelical,” “born again,” or “fundamentalist.” (Pew, for example, combines “evangelical” and “born again.”)

So who are the "Trump Catholics" -- defined in terms of the "three Bs" -- who are turning their backs on the views of their pope?

Let's try to fit this phenomenon into that "Catholic voter" typology that a veteran Catholic priest inside the D.C. Beltway explained to me years ago. I know that I keep bringing this up, but do you see its relevance to the current holes in the coverage of Trump voters? Or Hillary Clinton voters? Or Sen. Ted Cruz voters?

This elderly priest said there are currently four types of "Catholic" voters:

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (perhaps even many Latinos) lean to GOP.
* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter ... depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.
* Sunday-morning American Catholics. These voters are regulars in the pews and may even fill leadership roles in their parishes. These are the Catholic voters that are really up for grabs, the true swing voters that the candidates are after.
* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to 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 where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

It's hard not to see this as a description of doctrinally committed Catholics (and evangelicals) versus Catholics (and evangelicals) who may be claiming the same faith label as in the past, but that's about it.

That's why I was fascinated by a passage in that Post #NeverTrump campaign story that I mentioned earlier. Rather than talking about the old content-rich faith labels, perhaps its time to admit that for many Americans -- inactive Catholics and evangelicals included -- their minds and hearts belong to other sources of "truth." Consider this:

“We’ve got this Enquirer magazine mentality,” Gov. Gary R. Herbert of Utah said in an interview. “We are subject to this reality-TV voyeurism that is taking place. Fast-food headlines, no substance, all flash. The Twitter atmosphere out there, snarky comments on email, Snapchat. Everything is superficial. . . . We’ve got to wake up, America.”

So journalists, is the reality here that Citizen Trump is dominating the votes of the fast-food Catholic voters and the fast-food evangelicals? Trump is playing by his own emotional rules (I've been using a #RealityTVRules hashtag) and they are not the same as the ones used by, oh, Pope Francis or the leaders of the evangelical establishment.

Once again, we need more nuanced work by exit pollsters to try to find out what is happening out there. Maybe journalists in elite newsrooms can make appeals to the pollsters linked to their news organizations?

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