So Mitt Romney narrowly won the Michigan Republican primary, beating Rick Santorum. The exit polls are reporting Roman Catholic Santorum won a large majority of Protestant Evangelicals but that more of his fellow Catholics voted for Mormon Mitt Romney.
This, is a good thing. I say that not as a supporter of Mitt Romney, but as someone who really thinks this may finally kill the media myth of a Catholic voting block. It’s been untrue for some time now, perhaps the needless brouhaha over Santorum saying fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy’s famous speech addressing his religion “made him want to puke” stirred things up a bit too. Certainly some Catholics agreed with Santorum about religion in government, some were angered about the dumping on JFK, and (if polls are to be believed) most didn’t give a whit because they will be voting Obama anyway.
What Santorum did win sweepingly, however, is the Evangelical Protestant vote. This, even more than Santorum’s vomiting on Camelot, should show that US voting no longer has a Catholic or Protestant block, and hasn’t for a long time. The split is clearly between those who are fundamentalist in nature and those who are more secular. American Catholics can be anyone from Rick Santorum to John Kerry to Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington who not only signed the gay marriage bill but pushed hard for its passing. On the Supreme Court we have arch-conservative Justice Scalia, but also liberal-leaning Justice Sotomayer: both practicing Catholics. The United States Latino population is rising rapidly, and as any glance of Latin American politics will show you the voting patterns can go anywhere from Far Right to Far Left, all in countries that are overwhelmingly Catholic. Same with opinions on the social issues of the moment. Look at Europe: Catholic Spain has had full gay marriage for over seven years now yet Catholic Poland remains very homophobic. The USA’s Latin population may end up being a crucial voting block one way or another, but it won’t be because they are mostly Catholic. Again, this is a good thing.
The big split–which I think will widen–in the USA is more one of religious-cultural identity than denominational tribalism. Mainline protestants on the coasts (for instance) are more likely to identify on social and economic issues with secular urbanites (the fastest growing US census religious identification since 1990 has been “none”) whereas Evangelical Protestantism (which once had a nasty anti-Catholic focus) increasingly views Fundamentalist Catholics like Clarence and Ginny Thomas or Rick Santorum as kindred spirits and allies. While some super-conservative bishops in the Catholic Church have been vocal opponents of abortion and health care funding for contraception, the main support of this opposition in polls hasn’t been amongst Catholics themselves (and certainly not Catholic women) but among the fundamentalist protestants. Even economic issues are increasingly becoming split on a fundamentalist vs adaptive/moderate basis with the Tea Party being the ultimate example as taking something amorphous like “SMALL GOVERNMENT” and elevating it to quasi-religious status whereas a large proportion of Catholic charities welcome some degree of government involvement and assistance for their work. In 2012 no candidate in either party would ever utter the words protestant, catholic, or jewish in a tribalistic, “us vs. them” shout-out. All that “us vs. them” business is now done with terms like elites, real Americans, heartland, faith-based values, and phrases like “take our country back”.
If you had told a GOP leader circa 1928 (when the Democrats tried this bold game-changer and failed miserably to Hoover) that one day a Republican primary would be a nail-bitter between a Roman Catholic and a Mormon (with the Mormon winning more of the Catholics and the Catholic winning more of the Evangelicals!) they would probably have suggested you lay off the bathtub gin! It is a credit to this country that two previously stigmatized religions are not automatically ineligible to be its leader, and pure denominational voting patterns are mostly a thing of the past.