After all the the press attention dedicated to Donald Trump's wooing of evangelicals, it's time to get down to what really matters in American politics -- the never-ending battle over Catholics who regularly or semi-regularly visit church pews.
Yes, it helps Democrats if evangelical Protestants are not terribly excited about the GOP nominee and, thus, are more likely to vote with clenched teeth or even to stay home. This time around, Trump has strong supporters among the Religious Right old guard, but he also has strong, strong critics among solid, conservative Christian leaders (as opposed to the small, but press-friendly, world of progressive evangelicals).
But the big game is among Catholic voters. While lapsed and cultural Catholics are solidly in the Democratic Party camp, along with those in the elite "progressive Catholic" camp, the real question is what happens among millions of ordinary Sunday-morning Catholics and the much smaller number of traditional Catholics who are even more dedicated, in terms of participation in daily Mass, Confession and the church's full sacramental life. This is where the true "swing voters" are found. Does Trump have a prayer with those voters? We will see.
What does this have to do with the "evangelical Catholic" tag that has been claimed by Gov. Mike Pence, who got the VP nod from Trump? Hang on, because that connection came up during this week's "Crossroads" podcast conversation with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.
The term "evangelical Catholic" is highly controversial, for obvious reasons. In the media, this tends to be a negative term, applied either to people who were raised Catholic (see Pence) and are now evangelicals, or to Catholics who stress the church's ancient, orthodox teachings on moral and social issues on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and sex outside of marriage. Thus, these "evangelical Catholics" tend to be more popular with modern evangelicals than with the elite Catholics who often gather with journalists for cocktail parties on or near the Georgetown University campus.
Yes, the 1994 document "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" is a good place to start, when digging into the roots of this term. You can also do an online search for these names -- "Chuck Colson" and "Father Richard John Neuhaus."
The key is that, for progressive Catholics, efforts to gather evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics into one tent on social and moral issues are, well, nothing but recruiting campaigns for the Republican Party and that is that. The same goes for the work of Catholic conservatives such as George Weigel, who has argued -- especially in his book “Evangelical Catholicism" -- for a culturally engaged, enthusiastic, doctrinally conservative and, yes, evangelistic Catholicism that can be called "evangelical."
This is what people are talking about when (see this recent GetReligion post) they say that "evangelical Catholic" is merely a cynical political term, a label created by GOP strategists to allow them to go after the maximum number of swing voters in key states with large Catholic and evangelical Protestant populations.
Of course, one could say that -- on the doctrinal left -- that the new "Pope Francis Catholic" label serves a similar purpose, allowing Catholic politicos whose views match the media profile of the current pope (as opposed to the full sweep of his writings and sermons) to reach out to Catholic swing voters, while offending as few secular and religiously unaffiliated voters as possible.
With all that in mind, remember that Trump has said plenty of things (especially on abortion and religious liberty) that are horribly offensive to all Catholics -- period. At the same time, Hillary Clinton has shown unrelenting commitment to each and every doctrine at the heart of the Sexual Revolution, a fact could even trouble some modern Jesuits.
All of this is to say that Catholics who frequent pews face an agonizing choice this year between two candidates with political views, and personalities, that can turn pro-Catechism Catholics into pillars of salt.
All of this takes me back in time to an encounter with pollster and historian John Green of the University of Akron, during a 2008 seminar at the old Washington Journalism Center (click here for an earlier post on that topic):
... Green stood at a whiteboard and described the changes that he was seeing in the landscape of American religion. Everything he said on that day showed up years later, in the 2012 Pew Forum study of the religiously unaffiliated.
On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.
In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America's liberal religious denominations (such as the "seven sisters" of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up ... and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.
The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality -- the pluses and the minuses -- of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies. This could, to say the least, shape the party's relationships with the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and other major religious bodies.
Looking ahead to upcoming elections, Green said -- referring to the swing state of swing states, in presidential races -- that all of American politics could come down to which party manages to win the votes of Catholics in Ohio who go to Mass once or twice a month, rather than every Sunday morning or more.
So who offends "normal" Catholics the most, United Methodist Hillary Clinton or mainline Presbyterian Donald Trump? Will "evangelical Catholics" vote for Trump? Can Hillary -- with progressive Catholic Sen. Tim Kaine at her side -- convince Catholic swing voters that her ticket's "tone" is similar to Pope Francis, even though her beliefs on moral and social issues consistently clash with the pope's actual teachings?
Stay tuned. The battle over these labels has just begun.