Religious groups made effort to drive their flocks to midterm voting

Franciscan Brother Sam Nasada, a member of his order’s Province of St. Barbara, is seen in mid-September in Douglas, Ariz., holding a sign inviting citizens to vote in the Nov. 6 midterms. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

By Rhina Guidos 
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Just before the polls opened on Election Day on the West Coast, the Franciscan friars of the Province of St. Barbara in California tweeted a photo of Brother Sam Nasada in a brown habit holding a sign, imploring others to vote, using a quote from Pope Francis: “Indifference is dangerous.”

Religious groups such as the Franciscans in California were not the only ones urging voters to the polls during this year’s Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Months before the election, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas used social media to encourage Americans to register to vote and on Nov. 6 provided polling information for different states online while encouraging those casting ballots to “Vote with Mercy.”

It’s hard to gauge just how much influence religious groups had on voter turnout, but many preliminary estimates released the day after the election said more than 113 million votes were cast — the highest turnout for a midterm election since 1966, said a report from the U.S. Election Project.

During a Nov. 8 panel on “Religion and the 2018 Midterm Elections” sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Washington’s Georgetown University, panelist Rebecca Linder Blachly, director of government relations for the Episcopal Church, said many religious groups were able to mobilize their flocks and form coalitions with other denominations around issues such as feeding the hungry, immigration and refugee resettlement. The latter has “rattled a lot of Christian groups,” she said, since the Trump administration has moved to severely cut the refugee number.

Groups such as the Mercy sisters published guides about where they stood on issues such as racial justice, the economy, immigration and refugees, health care, gun violence prevention, global peacemaking and the environment. There’s also the U.S. bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which covers many of those same issues and aims to guide Catholics “in the exercise of their rights and duties as participants in our democracy.”

The Mercy sisters’ voting guide “2018 Midterm Election Voter Guide: A Call to Holiness” asked potential voters to reflect on issues based on what the Gospel and church teachings say and what to consider when voting for a candidate or an issue.

Preliminary analysis on how religious groups voted in the midterm elections released Nov. 7 by the Washington-based Pew Research Center showed that while many Christian denominations backed Republicans by large margins, Catholic voters remained almost evenly split between the country’s two major parties. Pew’s preliminary data showed that, of Catholics voting in the midterms, 50 percent voted for Democrats and 49 percent voted for Republicans.

Panelists from the Berkley Center’s religion and elections event said they were interested to see what a breakdown of the Catholic vote will show, which might reveal the influence of the Latino Catholic vote or a move by more White Catholics toward the Democratic Party in the midterms.

Some panelists cited figures from a 2016 election poll by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute that showed Catholics overall voted for then candidate Donald Trump 52 percent to 45. However, a breakdown of that vote showed that white Catholics voted 60 to 37 percent for Trump while Latino Catholics voted 67-26 for his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post, who is Catholic and has studied the relationship between religion and politics, also was on the panel.

“I am coming to the conclusion at this moment in history that religion does not matter at all, that religion is often given as a reason but it’s actually a rationale … people are voting their identities and dressing them up in the decent drapery of religion,” he said during the panel.

Religion matters in voting, he said, but a person’s sense of identity seems to play a more important part. He referenced the 2016 PRRI poll that show the difference between white Catholics and Latino voters in voting for and against Trump.

“A very substantial majority of Latino Catholics voted against Donald Trump and for Hillary Clinton. That would suggest to us that there was not a particular Catholic thing going on there,” Dionne said. “They were voting other aspects of their identity.”

But he said Catholicism can exert a force on the views of people on both sides of the political spectrum.

A voter marks his ballot under an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Assumption Catholic Church in Los Angeles during the midterm elections Nov. 6. (CNS photo/Mike Nelson, EPA)

“It makes conservatives more communitarian and it makes liberals think more about family issues, have qualms about abortion,” he said. “I think it creates some tensions on both sides but I think Latino, White (Catholic) numbers suggest that those of us who are Catholics should not pretend that Catholicism is that decisive in people’s views.”

Panelist Clyde Wilcox, professor of government at the Georgetown University, said a more detailed view of the voters behind the numbers, which is not yet available, may show what could be happening for Catholics in the political landscape.

But he said that “gradually, what’s happened over time is that whites are leaving the Catholic Church and Latinos have grown as a percentage but that’s a slow growth. I don’t know the data but this might represent a shift in white voters who are Catholic.”

What this political season has shown is that religious groups made a major effort in organizing their flocks, by mobilizing people to vote for their values, forming coalitions with other denominations in areas where they agreed and participating in big and small events attended by religious leaders seeking to persuade religious voters on certain issues, Linder Blachly said. And some went beyond the grassroots efforts.

The Faith and Freedom coalition spent $18 million to mobilize the vote, Linder Blachly said, and had previously spent $10 million in the 2016 election. Most of it was spent on efforts to support the Republican Party.

“So, that’s some real dollars and that’s different,” Linder Blachly said. “I haven’t seen anything like that.”

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