WASHINGTON — The Catholic Church — a politically and ethnically sprawling institution — has no natural home on the American ideological spectrum. Neither major party combines moral conservatism with a passion for social justice. So Catholic leaders have often challenged Democrats to be more anti-abortion and Republicans to be more concerned about immigrants and the poor.
But President Obama's first term was a period of unexpected aggression against the rights of religious institutions. His Justice Department, in the Hosanna-Tabor case, argued against the existence of any “ministerial exception” to employment rules. Obama tried to mandate that Catholic schools, hospitals and charities offer insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients. His revised policy still asserts a federal power to declare some religious institutions secular in purpose, reducing them to second-rate status under the First Amendment.
On top of this, Obama ran a stridently pro-abortion re-election campaign, seeking culture-war advantage on an issue he seldom mentioned four years ago.
The Catholic hierarchy and more traditional Catholic laymen reacted as you'd expect. Bishops issued pastoral letters in defense of religious liberty. Conservative and anti-abortion groups organized in battleground states.
The result? According to the first cut of exit poll analysis by the Pew Research Center, Obama's support among white Catholics fell to 40 percent — seven points lower than four years ago. It was one of the largest swings of any portion of the electorate. In a close election, this reaction might have made all the difference. But the election wasn't particularly close. And the trend among white Catholics was partially offset by Latino Catholics moving in the opposite direction for reasons unrelated to abortion or religious freedom.
This result reveals a tension at the heart of the Republican coalition. The portion of that coalition which is pushing away Latino Catholics is making the political work of conservative Catholics far more difficult.
Catholics have a historical advantage in understanding the imperative of inclusion in modern politics. They belong, after all, to an institution that has been multicultural since Peter first set foot in Rome. But white evangelicals are now getting their own education in coalition politics. They gave Mitt Romney a remarkable 79 percent of their vote while comprising a larger percentage of the electorate than they did 2004. But their energy and loyalty were rendered irrelevant — washed away — by GOP failures among other groups.