From the Pews to the Polls: Greater Devotion Linked to Higher Levels of Civic Participation

A new EWTN News/RealClear Opinion Research poll emphasizes that Catholics who are more engaged with their faith also are more engaged with living out what the Church teaches on a wide range of issues.

New polling sheds light on how Catholic voters are assessing Election 2020.
New polling sheds light on how Catholic voters are assessing Election 2020. (photo: Shutterstock)

It’s unsurprising that greater Catholic devotion is linked to greater fidelity to Church teaching on contentious issues in society, such as abortion and religious liberty. But according to a new poll released yesterday by EWTN News/RealClear Opinion Research, there’s also a connection between devotion and living out a more general teaching of the Church: the duty to participate in civic life.

That’s one of the takeaways from the new poll, which assessed the attitudes of U.S. Catholics on a host of issues. The survey found that Catholics who say they accept “all or most” of the Church’s teaching outpaced their less-devoted peers in several categories indicative of civic engagement, including both their motivation to and likelihood of voting in the 2020 general election. 

Eighty-five percent of Catholics who selected the highest category of devotion said they were “definitely” voting, while only 79% of those who said they accept some or even none of the Church’s teachings were committed to casting a ballot. 

The poll, which surveyed 1,500 self-identified Catholics nationwide from Aug. 27 and Sept. 1, also found that more devoted Catholics had higher levels of interest in relevant social and political issues. Of the 20 issues about which respondents were asked, more devout Catholics expressed higher rates of concern on 15 of them. They had the same level of concern with less devout Catholics on three issues and lower levels on only two.

While the gap was significant on issues like religious freedom (16 percentage points) and abortion (17), it also applied to a host of others, including national security (9), immigration (5), civil unrest (5), race relations (4) and income inequality (3). More devout Catholics’ rate of concern was no different on coronavirus, climate change and Supreme Court appointments, though the poll was conducted before the vacancy created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Sept. 18 death. Their rate was slightly lower on the environment (-2) and trade policy with China (-1).


Social Dimension

The findings were not a surprise to Holy Cross Father Bill Dailey, the Thomas More Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics & Culture. He points out the Gospel’s repeated call to “go out to the world” in service of others as a contributing factor in engaged Catholics’ higher levels of civic participation.

“When we open ourselves to the stirrings of the Spirit, we are naturally moved outwards toward our neighbor, away from a focus on self and toward the building of the Kingdom,” said the Holy Cross priest. Father Dailey added that while the Gospel doesn’t mandate a particular form of government, “it does counsel us that indifference is not of God.”

“Who can hear the word of God, living and active, and just put their feet up?” he said.

John Carr, who founded and directs the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, stresses the Church’s consistent teaching that Catholics should contribute to society through voting and other forms of engagement.

“We’re called to care for others and to stand up for what we believe, and public life — civic life — is where you do that in a democracy,” said Carr.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “it is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom” (2239). Exercising the right to vote is considered “morally obligatory,” as it is a dimension of “co-responsibility for the common good.” Pope Francis, likewise, has taught that “politics is one of the highest forms of charity, because it seeks the common good.”

This teaching flows more broadly out of the social character of the Catholic faith, which 20th-century theologian Henri de Lubac said in his influential work Catholicism was so inherent that a term like “social Catholicism” was a redundancy.


Deeper Connection

The EWTN/RealClear survey also found a connection between devotion and solidarity with others outside the home during the time of coronavirus. Those who expressed a high level of devotional practice reported higher levels of “finding themselves closer” to neighbors, other people in their town, and “other Americans” at considerably higher rates than those who said their Catholic faith had only a moderate or minimal influence on their lives. 

For instance, 60% of Catholics who accepted all or most teachings of the Church said they grew closer to other people in their local community, while just 33% of those Catholics who say the Church has little or no influence on their lives said the same.

The poll results are consistent with broader studies on religion and civic engagement. A broad 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that regular participation in a religious community was clearly linked with higher levels of civic engagement, especially voting in elections and joining community organizations. 

That study found that 69% of those active in a religious community “always vote in national elections,” while only 59% of religiously inactive people and 48% of unaffiliated individuals could say the same. It also stressed that while religious participation made a difference, mere affiliation was not indicative of greater civic involvement, a trend that held with data from other countries.

Scholarly research has also highlighted a connection, with the 1995 work Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics by Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman and Henry E. Brady, considered to be a foundational study on the topic. That study demonstrated a strong correlation between church attendance and voter turnout, which was also reflected in the RealClear poll: Eighty-nine percent of weekly Massgoers voted in the 2016 election, while Catholics who attended Mass yearly or never voted turned out at a rate of 84%.

Rebecca Glazier, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, explains that religious participation promotes civic engagement not only through Church teaching, but also by helping to develop skills conducive to involvement in politics and other social activity.

“So you can imagine someone who attends Mass regularly not only hears messages about volunteering in the community, and the importance of conservative political issues like abortion and religious liberty, but they are probably also involved in their parish in other ways,” like committee participation or serving the poor, she said.

Glazier also notes that Catholics are an especially politically diverse group, which helps explain why devotion would be linked to higher interest in a wide range of issues, something you might not see among white evangelical Protestants or Black Protestants. 

The relationship between religious participation and civic engagement may also have an impact in the other direction. The Little Rock Congregations Study, which Glazier directs, has found that congregations that are more engaged in community service not only have a greater sense of political efficacy, but also tend to see greater levels of engagement in church services.

“These two things — religious participation and civic engagement — are definitely related,” she said. 


Concerning Trend

The relationship between religion and civic life in America has been well-noted since the nation’s founding. 

In his “Farewell Address,” George Washington said that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, noted that religious practice provides a sturdy moral foundation from which to exercise the duties of citizenship, without which people tend toward mere self-preservation or political apathy.

Given the long-standing connection between the two, decreasing levels of religiosity in the U.S. — the number of the religiously unaffiliated has risen 17% in the past decade — suggest troubling consequences for civic engagement. For instance, studies have found that a decrease in church attendance leads to lower voter turnout.

The trend leaves Catholic social thinkers like John Carr concerned about the future of a less-religious America.

“I’m afraid we will retreat into a kind of protective individualism, which offers the illusion of escape, but is really just an evasion of responsibility,” he said. 

Father Dailey offers a spiritual explanation of the problem.

“When we cut ourselves off from the Body of Christ, we are branches uprooted from the vine — no place to be for a branch!” he said. “A self-involved person is not going to be considering the common good, is less apt to expend energy thinking about neighbor, the stranger, the widow and orphan.”

Both point to redoubling of Catholics’ commitment to the faith as part of the cure of increasing social apathy, with Carr saying that the “strength and motivation for engagement” is to be found “in Jesus’ call to love our neighbor.”

Using Robert Frost’s The Gift Outright as an illustration, Father Dailey says that the weakness brought on by “withholding from our land of living” can only be overcome when we seek “salvation in surrender.”

“There we find a warning, but also a way back. God is always offering us that way back.”