March 27, 2008

A Portrait of American Catholics on the Eve of Pope Benedict’s Visit to the U.S.

III. Social and Political Views of Catholics in the U.S.

Social Issues
Role of Government
Immigration
Health Care
Ideology and Partisanship
Voting Patterns

Social Issues

On many life and family issues, including abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage and the death penalty, the views of Catholics tend to closely resemble the views of the U.S. public as a whole, according to Pew Research Center surveys from 2006 and 2007. On many of these issues, however, there are noticeable differences in the views of Catholics who attend church at least once a week and those who attend less frequently.

Despite the Catholic Church’s strong opposition to abortion, a slim majority (51%) of Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 44% oppose abortion in most or all cases. This breakdown is nearly identical to the views of the public as a whole. However, white Catholics who attend church at least once a week (60%) and Latino Catholics (53%) are more likely than Catholics as a whole to oppose legalized abortion in most or all circumstances.

Catholics’ views on stem cell research also closely resemble the views of the public as a whole. But, here again, there are pronounced differences between Catholics who attend church regularly and those who do not. More than two-thirds of white Catholics who attend church less than once a week support stem cell research, while only 22% oppose such research. By contrast, white Catholics who attend church more frequently are evenly divided on the issue, with 46% saying it is more important to conduct stem cell research that might result in new medical cures and an equal number saying it is more important to avoid destroying human embryos.

Catholics are slightly more supportive of gay marriage than is the public as a whole. But opposition to gay marriage is much higher among white Catholics who attend church at least once a week (59%) than among those who attend less frequently (42%). A slight majority (52%) of Hispanic Catholics oppose gay marriage, with a significant number (16%) expressing no opinion on this issue.

On the issue of the death penalty, a majority of Catholics express views that are in tension with the Catholic Church’s teachings against capital punishment. In the August 2007 Pew survey, six-in-ten Catholics expressed support for the death penalty, while only about one-third (35%) opposed it. Although white Catholics who attend church at least weekly were somewhat less likely to support capital punishment compared with white Catholics who attend less frequently, 55% of weekly attenders said they support the death penalty. Among Hispanic Catholics, fewer than half support the death penalty, with 47% saying they favor it and 40% expressing opposition.

Views on Social Issues

Role of Government

The views of Catholics on other policy issues also tend to resemble the views of the public overall. For instance, nearly half (48%) of all Catholics say they would rather have a bigger government that offers more services, while 41% say they would prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services. Among the public as whole, in comparison, 43% favor a larger government role and 45% prefer a smaller government role.

There are, however, significant divisions among Catholics on the role of government. Most notably, Hispanic Catholics are much more supportive of an active government – 77% express support for a bigger government that provides more services – than are white, non-Latino Catholics (36%). Additionally, young Catholics are more supportive of an expanded role for government than are older Catholics. More than half (56%) of Catholics under age 50 prefer a larger government that offers more services, compared with fewer than four-in-ten (36%) Catholics age 50 and older.

Among white Catholics, frequency of church attendance also makes a difference. White Catholics who attend church weekly tend to favor a smaller government (62%) rather than a larger government (25%). White Catholics who attend church less often, on the other hand, are more closely divided on this question; 45% favor a smaller government that provides fewer services, while 44% favor a larger government that provides more services.

Immigration

Catholics are somewhat more likely than the population as a whole to express the view that immigrants strengthen American society. Not surprisingly, Hispanic Catholics tend to be much more supportive of immigrants and immigration compared with their non-Latino counterparts; two-thirds of Latino Catholics say that immigrants strengthen American society, while only 22% say that immigrants threaten American customs and values.

White Catholics are fairly evenly divided on this question, and there tend to be only slight differences between those who attend church at least once a week (49% of whom say immigrants strengthen American society) and those who attend church less often (46% of whom say immigrants strengthen American society).

Health Care

On the issue of universal health care, there are few substantial differences among Catholics. Majorities of every major Catholic subgroup – including 69% of Latino Catholics, 62% of white Catholics who attend church weekly and 71% of white Catholics who attend church less often – support the federal government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens.

Government, Immigration and Health Care

Ideology and Partisanship

The ideological portrait of Catholics is similar to that of the population as a whole. More than four-in-ten Catholics (44%) describe themselves as politically moderate, about a third (34%) say they are politically conservative and less than one-in-five (18%) describe themselves as politically liberal. Among the population as a whole, 39% say they are moderates, 36% say they are conservatives and 19% say they are liberals.

Despite being fairly conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, Latino Catholics are more likely than other Catholics to describe themselves as politically liberal; more than one-in-four (26%) Latino Catholics describe their ideology as liberal. Latino Catholics are less likely than other Catholics to describe themselves as moderates (27% vs. 44% for all Catholics) and about as likely as Catholics overall to describe themselves as conservatives (31% vs. 34%).

Among both white and Latino Catholics, those who attend religious services more frequently are more likely to describe their ideology as conservative. The gap is particularly pronounced among white Catholics; 43% of those who attend church at least once a week describe themselves as conservative, compared with only 30% of white Catholics who attend church less often.

Older Catholics are much more likely than their younger counterparts to describe themselves as politically conservative. More than four-in-ten Catholics age 65 and older (43%) say they are conservatives, with only 11% identifying as liberals. Catholics under age 30, by contrast, are equally likely to describe themselves as liberals as to describe themselves as conservatives (27% and 26%, respectively).

Catholics and Party AffiliationWhen it comes to party affiliation, Catholic registered voters also closely resemble the population as a whole. Nearly four-in-ten (37%) are Democrats, more than a quarter (27%) are Republicans and nearly a third (31%) are independents. Latino Catholics are noticeably more Democratic than are their white, non-Latino counterparts, with more than half (55%) of Latino Catholic registered voters identifying with the Democratic Party.

While older Catholics are more likely than younger Catholics to be conservative, they are also more likely than those under age 30 to identify with the Democratic Party. More than four-in-ten Catholics age 65 and older (44%) identify themselves as Democrats, compared with only 34% of Catholics ages 18-29.

Differences in Party Affiliation

Voting Patterns

Catholics at the Voting BoothIn recent presidential elections Catholics have tended to split their vote roughly evenly between Republican and Democratic candidates.

In 2000, Al Gore and George Bush nearly split the Catholic vote (50% to 47%, respectively). In 2004, Bush beat John Kerry among Catholics, but by a relatively narrow margin (52% to 47%).

White Catholics have been more supportive of Republicans in recent elections than have Latino Catholics, with Bush enjoying a seven-point margin of victory among white Catholics in 2000 and a 13-point margin of victory among this group in 2004. And white Catholics who attend religious services at least once a week have been the most reliable Republican constituency within the Catholic population, supporting Bush over Gore (58% to 39%) in 2000 and Bush over Kerry by an almost identical margin in 2004.

Despite the inroads that Bush made between 2000 and 2004 among Hispanic Protestants, his support among Hispanic Catholics was identical in both elections. In both 2000 and 2004, one-third of Latino Catholic voters supported Bush, with large majorities opting instead for his Democratic opponent. The sheer size of the Catholic population alone guarantees that Catholic groups will continue to play an important electoral role in 2008.

This report was written by Luis Lugo, Director; Gregory Smith, Research Fellow; Dan Cox, Research Associate; and Allison Pond, Research Associate, at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images