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Why Does Santorum Appeal More to Evangelicals Than Catholics?

The presidential hopeful’s strength grows on the campaign trail, with 2 more wins.


| Posted 3/15/12 at 1:15 PM

Christopher Gregory/Getty Images

Rick Santorum is showing surprising support from evangelicals, despite making no bones about diligently practicing his Catholic faith.

The former Pennsylvania senator is tenaciously maintaining second place in the campaign to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, especially following primary victories in Alabama and Mississippi this week.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is his relatively poor showing among Catholic Republicans, who are demonstrating a distinct preference for front-running Mitt Romney, a Mormon and former governor of Massachusetts.

Does it mean the wish expressed by the only Catholic ever elected president in his pre-election speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 — that religion should be irrelevant to politics — has come true?

Or does it show that religion has become relevant in a way unimagined 50 years ago?

John F. Kennedy’s advocacy of an “absolute separation of church and state” has certainly not been embraced by the American electorate, noted Greg Smith. He is the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life senior researcher. “I have seen no data to suggest religion is irrelevant,” Smith said. “Religion has been a powerful predictor of voting trends in recent general elections.”

Over the past few national elections, he said, the general rule has been that “the more committed people are to their religion, regardless of which religion that is, the more likely they are to vote Republican.” Ethnicity, however, tends to trump religion; thus, black evangelicals and Hispanic Catholics vote more Democratic, regardless of their level of commitment.

Exit polling conducted during the March 13 Mississippi and Alabama primaries, and during the so-called “Super Tuesday” primaries on March 6, questioned voters about their religion, but not about their level of commitment. However, the data confirm trends from previous primaries, showing that Santorum appealed more to evangelical Protestants than to Catholics.

In four Super Tuesday states where exit polls tracked Catholics, Santorum managed to tie Romney for Catholics in only one contest. Romney won decisively in two states and tied with Newt Gingrich (also Catholic) in the third.

In Alabama and Mississippi, Romney continued to do better with white, non-evangelicals, while both Santorum and Gingrich narrowly outpolled Romney with evangelicals. As well, Santorum continued to lead with those who say it “matters a great deal” that their choice for president shares their religious beliefs — a signal that evangelicals consider Santorum one of their own.

In the seven Super Tuesday states, among white evangelicals, Santorum outpolled Romney in four. Romney won in Massachusetts and Vermont. In Virginia, Santorum was not on the ballot. At the beginning of the primaries, Romney and Santorum were even in terms of their appeal to evangelicals.

According to John Green, political science director at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, there are several theories about why Santorum has appealed more to evangelicals than to his fellow Catholics, though no polling has asked the right questions to prove any of them. “They could all be true,” he said.

One explanation is that evangelicals are generally more conservative on social issues than most Catholics, as is Santorum himself. The former Pennsylvania senator may well be outpolling Romney among a minority of Catholics who are traditional in their moral theology, while Romney is doing better with more secularized Catholics or those who are Republican because of their economic rather than their social views.

Since Romney does better among big-city Republicans, whose views tend to be more moderate on social issues, and who are more exposed to Romney’s vast advertising budget, some Catholic preference for Romney may be the result of the Catholic concentration in urban areas.

Finally, proposed Green, some Catholics who may well share Santorum’s values may support Romney anyway because they believe he is more electable in the general election against President Obama. Evangelicals tend to vote ideologically rather than strategically.

Impossible 50 Years Ago

“One interesting thing about Santorum’s appeal to evangelicals is that it is something that couldn’t have happened 50 years ago,” said Green. “There was so much tension between them and Catholics.” In the meantime, “evangelicals have discovered they are closer to traditional Catholics than they are to other Protestants on many social issues, and traditional Catholics have found the same thing.”

Green added that at the same time issues such as abortion were coming to the fore in the U.S., in the 1970s, Pope John Paul II was making a positive impression on evangelicals internationally.

But in 1960, the papacy loomed large in evangelical propaganda aimed at defeating candidate Kennedy. According to a March 1 CNN story by Michael Wolraich, the Justice Department had counted 144 publishers of anti-Catholic literature during the campaign. Much of it warned that Kennedy would follow the Pope’s orders and establish Catholic schools across the country, and much of it came from evangelicals.

For his part, Santorum has won the endorsement of several evangelical groups. One pastor with a Web ministry, Rev. Steven Andrew of, told the Register, “I ask Catholics and Protestants to vote Exodus 18:21 in every election, which is to vote for Rick Santorum, because Santorum includes God in government, as our Founding Fathers say to do, and will bring God’s blessings to the U.S.A. by being pro-life and supporting God’s [definition of] marriage of one man and one woman.”

One of the reasons why some Republicans may prefer Romney is that Santorum makes public pronouncements in an unguarded way, according to David Mills, executive editor of First Things magazine. A typical example was his reaction after reading Kennedy’s 1960 speech about the separation of church and state. He said it made him “want to throw up.”

“I don’t like what Kennedy had to say either,” Mills said. “But couldn’t Santorum have found a different way to say it? I just wish Santorum would speak from a more presidential, a more considered, place.”

Kennedy’s speech, said Christopher Shannon, an associate professor of history at Christendom College in Virginia, was made with the view of minimizing the damage being done to Kennedy’s run for the presidency by anti-Catholic propaganda. His intent was laudable, said Shannon. “But it was how he made the argument that Santorum objected to — and I have trouble with it, too. He was saying: ‘Don’t discriminate against me on the basis of my religion because my religion doesn’t matter.’” And it didn’t matter, Kennedy argued, because the separation of church and state renders religion irrelevant: “No Catholic prelate” should tell a politician what to do; nor should any Protestant minister ever tell his congregants how to vote. In fact, no religious organization should ever try to influence public policy at all, went the argument.

Secularization Trend

According to Shannon, the Kennedy speech marked the beginning of the secularization movement within American Democrats. They “were for religion up till then, even if they didn’t believe in it themselves.”

Two decades later, New York Catholic Gov. Mario Cuomo’s 1984 landmark speech at the University of Notre Dame, entrenched this new approach among some Catholic politicians. Said Shannon: “He said that while he personally was opposed to abortion, he wouldn’t impose his views on others. At the same time, he credited his concern for social justice on the social teachings of the Catholic Church; so I guess he thought it was okay to impose those on others.”

Santorum has followed up his comment on Kennedy’s speech with considered explanations, which do not, however, make the same headlines. “That was a radical statement,” he told a Boston newspaper. “We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process.”

But Santorum also made it clear that he does not “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country,” he stated.

View of the Constitution

Richard Thompson, the president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Santorum, not Kennedy, is correct on the Constitution. He cited a 1984 Supreme Court case, Lynch v. Donnelly, in which the court declared, “It has not been thought either possible or desirable to enforce a regime of total separation.”

Thompson is not surprised at Santorum’s evangelical support. His own organization, though staffed largely by Catholics, defends many evangelicals in their battles for religious liberty and Christian values.

“Traditional Catholics, for want of a better phrase, and evangelicals share the same patriotism, the same desire to keep America true to its founding Christian values,” he said.

Thompson was raised Protestant but converted to Catholicism through a process that began when he served as a district attorney, and prosecuted Jack Kevorkian, the infamous “Dr. Death,” for assisting people to commit suicide. “When I went looking for arguments to explain why it was a good thing to prosecute, while public opinion was all on his side, I found the Catholic Church had been making those arguments for 1,500 years; that Augustine had been arguing against assisted suicide,” Thompson recalled.

First Things’ Mills suggested that the same phenomenon helped bring evangelicals and Catholics together politically. “When it came to making a case against same-sex ‘marriage’ or abortion, all evangelicals could do is quote the Bible; and when it comes to abortion, there isn’t much beyond ‘Thou shalt not kill’ in the Bible,” said Mills.

When they looked for universal principles that were usable in public-policy debate, evangelicals found that the Catholic Church had already worked that out using natural law.

At a more grassroots level, said Mills, the same fraternity was established during prayer vigils and protests outside abortion businesses. “Once they got past the fact that the other guy was praying with a rosary or Bible, they formed friendships based on fighting a mutual enemy.”

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.