Sed Contra: The Political Enigma of Catholic Minority Groups

Deal W. Hudson
June 1, 2001

The top priority of Republican Party strategists over the last few years has been winning more support from two groups—religiously active voters and racial and ethnic minorities. In the case of Mass-attending Catholics who also belong to minority groups—Hispanic, Asian, and African-American—this outreach effort poses an intriguing question: Will Republicans succeed in entering minority communities only through the door of the religiously active? The answer is almost undoubtedly yes since church attendance correlates so closely to the traditional values that inform President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”

This was one of the conclusions reached this past April by a group of panelists at the National Catholic Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. The panelists included Raymond Arroyo of the Eternal Word Television Network, Kate O’Beirne of National Review, William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal, and Steve Wagner of QEV Analytics, which has conducted major studies of Catholic voters for Crisis. Given the hairbreadth outcome of the 2000 election, the panelists argued that Bush’s reelection will hinge on his success in appealing to minorities: Catholic minorities, it was added, might be the most receptive to the president’s message.

Of adults in the United States who identify themselves as Catholics, 78 percent are white, 16 percent are Hispanic, 3 percent are African-American, 2 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are Native American. This represents a level of diversity significantly higher than that of the country as a whole. The Hispanic population is exploding, and its impact on the Church in the United States can hardly be underestimated. (The cover story of the September Crisis will focus on this topic.)

Hispanic youth presently make up 38 percent of all Catholics born since 1982. This number is made all the more startling by the fact that fewer and fewer Hispanics are identifying themselves as Catholic. In 1970, more than 75 percent of Hispanics called themselves Catholic, while today that number is less than 60 percent.

The drift of Hispanics from the Church surely concerns the bishops more than the Republicans, because Republicans may pick up the support of ex-Catholic Hispanics if they find their way into evangelical congregations, whose members are often politically conservative. The Church, on the other hand, may never get them back.

In 2000, Hispanics voted for Bush (31 percent) at a much higher rate than African-Americans (8 percent). Bush shows a natural affinity for reaching out to Hispanics, but his ability to connect with African-Americans as yet has been nil. In the United States, there are 2.3 million Catholics and 300 priests who are African- American and 1,300 predominantly African-American parishes. Someone will undoubtedly suggest to the president and his party that these parishes are good places to start outreach efforts, as churches have been traditional centers of African-American political power.

It will be an uphill battle. As Steve Wagner’s research for Crisis has shown, the African-American vote is the only vote that does not reflect a correlation between church attendance and openness toward the Republican Party. How difficult this effort will be is also illustrated by the lamentable fact that the majority of African-Americans refuse to embrace school choice, although it is their children who will benefit from it most.

It is easy to see from the U.S. bishops’ 1999 report Hispanic Ministry at the Turn of the New Millennium why Bush and his party will initially do better with Hispanics than African-Americans. First, since Hispanics are more numerous, they are much more widely incorporated into the U.S. Church. More than 3,600 parishes have Hispanic ministries; there are more than 2,000 Hispanic priests, and 11 percent of all U.S. seminarians are Hispanic. More importantly, a recent survey of Hispanic bishops reported “family strength and values” as the most important contribution of Hispanic Catholics to their dioceses. Bush’s emphasis on strengthening the family may be his entrée into Hispanic loyalty.

Bush’s track record thus far suggests that he will bring his message, unadorned, to Catholic minority groups and simply take his chances. We will then find out whether those among them who attend Mass regularly areas disposed toward Bush’s message as their white Catholic counterparts.

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