When the state with the 11th highest number of Catholic residents in the country happens to be a presidential battleground, it’s sure thing that followers of the faith will play a key role in deciding the next president.
Roman Catholics make up more than 25 percent of Wisconsin’s population, or 1.5 million people, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies’ 2010 U.S. Religion Census: Religious Congregations & Membership Study.
Joshua Mercer, executive director of the advocacy group Catholic Vote, said Catholics vote in higher numbers than the general population, so in Wisconsin, they probably make up more than 30 percent of the electorate.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, selected Rep. Paul Ryan, a Janesville native and a Catholic, as his running mate, which Mercer said will help the GOP ticket pick up votes in the battleground state of Wisconsin.
“Whoever wins the Catholic vote in Green Bay will pick the next president of the United States,” he said. “Battleground states disproportionately Catholic … Mitt Romney’s selection of a Midwestern pro-life conservative Catholic, was a smart decision and made Wisconsin a definite battleground. It could be the tipping point.”
Ryan isn’t the only Catholic on the presidential ballot.
Vice President Joe Biden also is Catholic and President Barack Obama is Protestant.
Catholic Vote has endorsed Romney because of the former Massachusetts governor’s positions against abortion and same-sex marriage as well as his support for repealing the Health and Human Services mandate that requires employer health plans to provide access to contraception regardless of whether it’s a faith-based organization. The Catholic Church has opposed the mandate, because leaders say it violates the church’s teachings. Several Catholic organizations have sued in hopes of overturning the federal mandate on grounds of religious freedom.
Diversity among the ranks
Catholics are a diverse voting bloc, St. Norbert College political science professor Charley Jacobs said. It includes a devout group that attends church every week, and wealthy, white conservatives that tend to be more influenced by their parish’s messages and therefore often vote conservatively. But those who aren’t regular churchgoers, or individuals who identify themselves as Catholic but don’t attend Mass every week as well as Hispanic Catholics, tend to vote more liberally.
That is a shift from the 1960s, Jacobs said. During the 1960 election, there was fear of papal influence given John F. Kennedy’s Catholic background. Catholics voted in droves for the Democrat, but they were also a more homogeneous group 50 years ago, he said: white, urban, and blue collar, with similar interests and therefore similar voting patterns.
“There are (now) distinct groups among Catholics,” Jacobs said. “The more devout you are, the more conservative you are and you tend to be Republican. The less devout, the more liberal you tend to be.”
Catholics, like many voters, prioritize social issues over others and may vote on a single social issue, such as abortion, gay marriage or stem cell research in accordance with the church’s teachings, even if it conflicts with the church’s teachings of taking care of the poor, he said.
“Obama, who generally is pro-choice with some nuance and qualification, is wholly supportive of welfare and social safety nets,” said Jacobs, who noted that it’s something Catholics may overlook because they see the abortion issue as more important.
“Romney or vice presidential candidate Ryan, although they’re applauded for their gay marriage and abortion positions (by Catholics), seem willing to balance budget by trimming social safety nets … there’s a constant tension of voters to meet some tenet of the faith when they cast their ballot for office.”
Bishop David Ricken, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, which has 304,614 members across 16 counties, condemned the continued legalization of abortion in the diocese’s newsletter, “The Compass,” but still encouraged Catholics to vote. The diocese is offering seminars and published pamphlets on the upcoming election as a way provide parishioners with information about the issues and candidates.
But support from an organization such as Catholic Vote doesn’t automatically mean Romney leads among those believers.
In mid June, Obama was in a virtual tie with Romney among Catholics 49 percent to 47 percent, according to the Pew Research Center’s national survey that had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. Since then, the Democratic incumbent has surged ahead, and now leads 54 percent to 39 percent, according to a Pew poll conducted on Sept. 16 that has a margin of error of 2.1 percentage points.
A number of Catholics in Northeastern Wisconsin say the most important issue for them is making abortion illegal. Given the president’s support for abortion rights, they said they don’t intend to vote for him Nov. 6.
“Life, without addressing that, the other issues have little relevance,” said Karen Lee of Menasha, who is against abortion. “His whole thing when he came in, he was going to unite us, but I think there’s more polarization and dissension than ever before. We’ve given him four years, and it’s gotten worse.”
Lee said there’s a “huge discrepancy” between what Obama says and what he does. She says Romney wasn’t her first choice for a presidential candidate, but she’s grown to support him, especially given her lack of faith in the president.
“I’ve been praying a lot that the right person gets in,” Lee said. “It’s a scary time.”
Abortion also is an important issue for Green Bay resident Mary Simonis. She said her positions against abortion and gay marriage came with her faith, and she will not support the president’s re-election bid as a result.
“We’re not a good fit, let’s just put it that way,” Simonis said. “People don’t see the sanctity in life (when they favor abortion rights). I see a real danger for seniors with euthanasia (as a result). Life, it has to be important, that’s what we’re all about.”
Many differences exist among Catholic voters. Janet Lawniczak, for example, is an Obama supporter and has volunteered for the president’s re-election campaign. She said she only supports abortion in cases of rape or if the mother’s health is in danger.
“People forget there’s more to the Bible than that, the abortion issue,” Lawniczak said.
Lawniczak said the Bible teaches that it’s important to love and take care of one’s neighbor, and the Green Bay resident said that she believes the president will continue to do just that.
“I like the way the president is handling the health care issues,” Lawniczak said. “I just think people are into instant fixes, and big problems take a while to fix.”
—published in Green Bay Press-Gazette, October, 2012