There’s quite a bit of mythology surrounding the term “Catholic vote,” whenever journalists discuss American politics.
First of all, there’s no such thing as a typical American “Catholic voter.” At the very least, journalists have to probe the sharp divisions between “cultural” Catholics and those who attend Mass on a regular basis.
In the past, I have shared a “Catholic voters” typology that I learned from an elderly priest who had decades of experience in Washington, D.C. I have edited this a bit:
* Ex-Catholics. Solid for Democrats. Cultural conservatives have no chance.
* Cultural Catholics who go to church a few times a year. This may be an "undecided voters" niche, depending on the economy, foreign policy issues, etc. Leans to Democrats.
* Sunday-morning American Catholics. Regulars in the pew and they may fill some parish leadership roles. This is the key “Catholic,” swing voter candidates are chasing.
* “Sweats the details" Catholics who go to confession, are active in full sacramental life of the church and back Catechism on matters of faith and practice. This is a small slice of “Catholic voters.” Solid for GOP.
All of this matters because Catholics, of one kind or another, are 21 percent of the U.S. population and their votes are crucial in swing states such as Ohio and Florida. In the past, Catholics were a crucial part of coalitions that led the Democratic Party.
This brings us to a Washington Post political-desk report about Sen. Kamala Harris throwing her hat into the already crowded field of Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nomination. The headline: “Sen. Kamala Harris formally opens her presidential campaign with a mix of unity and blunt talk about race.”
This is one of those stories in which it is hard to discuss its religion-news contents, because the story contains a large religion-shaped hole, one of special interest to many Catholics. In particular, it is interesting that the story does not contain these words — “Knights of Columbus.” Hold that thought:
OAKLAND, Calif. — Sen. Kamala D. Harris on Sunday formally announced her presidential campaign, merging lofty and unifying lines aimed at a restive Democratic electorate with a blunt discussion of racism, police shootings and the impact of police brutality.
Harris announced on Monday, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, that she would seek the presidency. Her appearance in her hometown on Sunday was the ceremonial start, and it became the highest-profile address yet by any presidential candidate.
Against a backdrop of giant American flags and, off to the side, flags from every state and territory, Harris spoke to a crowd estimated at 20,000 people that flooded a downtown square and spread into surrounding streets.
A few lines later, there is this thesis statement:
In implicit rebukes to a president known for falsehoods, she repeatedly said she would be an honest broker.
“Seek truth, speak truth and fight for the truth,” she said. “If I have the honor of being your president, I will tell you this: I am not perfect. Lord knows, I am not perfect. But I will always speak with decency and moral clarity and treat all people with dignity and respect. I will lead with integrity. And I will tell the truth.”
What crucial topic is missing from this story?
The following information — logically enough — is from a Catholic news source. However, it does concern recent actions debated in the light of day in U.S. Senate business.
On Dec. 5, Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) raised concerns about membership in the Knights of Columbus while the Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed the candidacy of Brian C. Buescher, an Omaha-based lawyer nominated by President Trump to sit on the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska.
In her questions to Buescher, Hirono said that the Knights have “taken a number of extreme positions.” Harris used her questions to label the organization as “opposed a woman’s right to choose” and against “marriage equality,” and suggested that Buescher could be unable to give a fair hearing to cases on these issues.
Thus, the lede on that Catholic News Agency report said, concerning a Jan. 16 action:
The Senate … passed a resolution saying it would be "unconstitutional" to consider membership in the Knights of Columbus a disqualifying criteria for public office. The resolution passed by unanimous consent, meaning it went unopposed by senators of either party.
The Jan. 16 resolution was drafted and introduced by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) in response to recent questions put to a judicial nominee, which suggested membership in the Knights could prevent someone serving impartially as a judge.
Citing the protection of religious liberty in the Constitution, the resolution noted that past candidates, including President John F. Kennedy, had suffered from “significant anti Catholic bigotry.”
This is clearly linked to Harris and, thus, is relevant to her campaign for the presidency.
Why? In part because of a theme in this Post report — that Harris is running as a candidate with a strong appeal to a variety of interest groups in the party. In other words, she needs a coalition in the middle of the modern Democratic party or just to the left of center.
That might include a few Catholics.
Harris has positioned herself more as an all-of-the-above candidate, which carries great promise — appealing to segments throughout the party — but also runs the risk of being too ill-defined.
“I think people would be hard pressed to say at the moment, ‘Here is her message, here is why she’s running,’ ” said David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant who helped orchestrate President Barack Obama’s political rise. “That’s a challenge she needs to meet. It’s not enough to be a good candidate on paper, to be in a strategically good position.”
Harris has been relatively untested, having spent only two years in the U.S. Senate. She will have to define herself under national scrutiny.
Again: What does this have to do with Catholics?
What’s the question, right there. Writing for the Los Angeles Times syndicate, Michael McGough noted that Harris is, at the very least, being clueless when it comes to Catholic history. Some would claim she is guilty of old-fashioned anti-Catholic bigotry.
In her questions, Harris noted that Buescher had been a member since 1993 of the “all-male” Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus. (By definition, a fraternal organization is all-male.) She asked the nominee: “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” and “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization?
The Knights of Columbus, sometimes described as the Catholic answer to the Masons, does oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, as does the Catholic Church generally (including the “liberal” Pope Francis). But it’s not primarily a political organization, as Harris’ questions implied. It’s a fraternal and charitable organization that also offers insurance plans.
I would imagine that there are still a few Catholic voters who read the Washington Post. Many on the Catholic or ex-Catholic left would, of course, cheer this stand by Harris. Many others would oppose it, in the strongest possible terms.
However, both sides of that Catholic-voter divide would consider this angle relevant, as Harris begins a national campaign, trying to build a large coalition of Democrats. Maybe this Catholic angle deserved a sentence or two in this major Post report?