Divisions in the Catholic vote for president show the continued importance of “educating Catholics about our own faith,” said analyst Joshua Mercer, co-founder of CatholicVote.org.
“If something’s really important, you don’t just say it once,” he said in a Nov. 7 interview with EWTN News. Rather, he explained, the Church must be creative, working to find as many venues as possible to continue spreading its message on life, marriage and religious liberty.
While more extensive information will be available in the coming months, initial data from the Nov. 6 presidential election indicates that Catholics maintained their standing as a bellwether group that indicates trends among the general electorate.
National exit polls show that Governor Mitt Romney held a significant lead among Protestants, especially Evangelicals, while those with no religious affiliation strongly favored President Barack Obama, according to a report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
When it came to Catholics, the analysis determined they were more divided.
Overall, national exit polls indicated that Catholics voted for Obama over Romney by a 50 to 48 percent margin, identical to Obama’s victory in the national popular vote.
The report found that white Catholics “swung strongly in the Republican direction relative to 2008.” Almost six in ten white Catholics voted for Romney, up from 52 percent who cast ballots for McCain in 2008.
Among Hispanic Catholics, however, 75 percent voted for Obama, with just 21 percent voting for Romney.
Differences in Church attendance also revealed patterns in voting behavior. Among voters of all faith backgrounds, those who attended religious services at least once per week preferred Romney by a 20 point margin.
Those who never attend religious services strongly favored Obama, while those attending a few times per month or per year supported Obama over Romney by a 55 to 43 percent margin.
Mercer said that these distinctions among Catholics are significant in understanding their voting behavior and reaching out with the message of the Church on critical issues.
While Catholics make up a large portion of the electorate – about one in four voters – they do not vote as a unified group, he recalled.
But Mercer said it is possible to identify at least three distinct subgroups of Catholics, each with their own voting behaviors.
While those who attended religious services regularly favored Romney, it is difficult from initial exit poll data to tell what impact issues such as religious liberty played in their vote.
The U.S. bishops have spoken out recently about threats to religious liberty, including a federal contraception mandate issued by the Obama administration that requires many religious institutions to offer insurance coverage of contraception, sterilization and early abortion drugs in violation of their beliefs.
A Pew survey shortly before the election showed that about one-third of Catholics who attend religious services at least monthly remembered hearing about religious liberty from the pulpit.
Mercer observed that it is possible that more than one-third of Catholics were present when religious liberty was discussed at Mass, but that they did not remember it because the issue was not consistently presented as an urgent matter.
The bishops have been unified in presenting a strong and clear message about the importance of religious liberty and the threat posed by the mandate, he said, and that message must continue to be proclaimed, so that the average person in the pew realizes that this “truly must be important.”
A second group of Catholic voters is comprised of those who are “cultural Catholics,” Mercer said. These individuals do not attend Mass regularly but still identify as Catholics. Although they have a basically “secular mindset,” they participate in the “rich culture” of the Church.
Among these Catholics, the faithful should see an “opportunity to evangelize” by reaching out through their shared culture and seek to deepen their understanding and appreciation of the Church, he said.
Another subgroup that is distinct in its voting behavior is the Latino Catholic population, said Mercer. Although most Hispanic Catholics are strongly pro-life and pro-marriage, this voting group heavily favored Obama, often differing from the Republican Party on immigration.
Reaching out to these Latino Catholics will require “a sustained effort,” Mercer said, explaining that teaching about the importance of pro-life and pro-marriage voting cannot be done simply through pamphlets handed out in the month before an election.
Rather, he said, there is a need to “invite our brothers and sisters who are Latino into the pro-life and pro-family movement and listen to them.”
We must recognize that this means committing to “long-term grassroots work” and investing in Hispanic communities, Mercer stressed.
If Latinos become more integrated into those movements, Mercer believes it will strengthen the pro-life and pro-marriage causes and allow different Catholic groups to learn from one another.
“It’s going to require building relationships,” he said.