The Catholic vote is dead. Or, at least, the Catholic vote is in no way Catholic. This presidential election hinged on the issues of abortion, criminal justice, and the economy. For many Catholics, voting for either major candidate meant voting against Church teaching.
This election set two contradictory characters face-to-face. Biden is in a state of informal excommunication and recently sued a group of nuns for their opposition to birth control, but still wears a rosary around his wrist. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Trump tear-gassed a group of protestors for a photo-op with a Bible in front of a church.
Biden touts the Catholic faith for votes, just as Trump does Evangelical Christianity. Neither candidate had a deep-seated devotion to Christianity, but Americans knew this.
In October, Pew Research conducted a survey that found that only 14% of American Catholic voters “say it is very important to them to have a president who shares their own religious beliefs”. In other words, Catholics have given up the search for a good Catholic president. This stems, in part, from the separation of Church and state, but also from the recognition that few people can rise to power while keeping their religious convictions.
Past Catholic presidential nominees, from Al Smith in 1928 to John F. Kennedy in 1960, have been scrutinized for their faith. To defend against such critiques, Kennedy famously declared, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” and subsequently disavowed obedience to the Church in the context of politics.
However, Joe Biden has faced no such scrutiny. American voters have no issue with his faith because he had little faith with which they could take issue. Should he be inaugurated, Joe Biden will be the second nominal Catholic to rise to the highest office in the land. The idea that there is a clear Catholic vote (in the sense that there was a Catholic candidate to vote for) is false. Neither Trump nor Biden could have honestly been called the recipient of the Catholic vote because neither of them truly embody faith, hope, or love.
The consideration Catholics gave to these candidates was not in light of their faith, but because of their commitment to specific social causes. Abortion was the prime issue for many Catholics in this election, leading them to vote Republican, while others gave more weight to criminal justice and immigration when they cast their ballots in favor of the Democratic Party. Somehow, voting pro-life became impossible, with anti-abortion and anti-death penalty advocates ending up on opposing sides of the ballot. For many Americans, Trump’s words on illegal immigration from 2015 still cut deeply. For others, Biden and Harris’ outspoken opposition to Catholic fraternities and social teaching were cause for concern.
Subsequently, the vote by the Catholic Church—the Church whose name means “according to the whole”—was split. The Catholic voting bloc found favor in neither candidate, and it had no particular favor for either candidate.
A brief examination of the Catholic vote suggests that this has always been the case.
In this sense, the Catholic vote is dead. For the past few weeks, that fact has discouraged me. But maybe this is a healthier realization than I first thought. This election has served as a kind of reality check for me, along with many other Catholics who have put too much stock in American politics.
The role of the government is fundamentally different from that of the Church. We should not expect secular authorities to carry out sacred duties. As we learn from the Epistle of James, our Catholic Faith is realized when we prevent abortions by supporting single mothers and help struggling children through mentorship programs. Christ did not tell us how to vote, but instead to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. This is not the charge of the government; this is the charge he gave Christians. The government has adopted some of these charges, but not because the government is Catholic.
Trying to speak of a Catholic vote is incongruous. Trying to fit the unity of that sacred institution of the Church into a secular box will inevitably result in an eradication of its catholicity. After this election, the Church is still one body in Christ, and the secular leader it helped elect is still a human being.
In American public schools, the Pledge of Allegiance is recited every day, whereas the Our Father is recited during daily mass. One of these prayers promises obedience to a democracy. The other is a resolution to make present God’s Kingdom. If American Catholics spent as much time preparing to approach the Eucharistic table as they did to approach voting polls, we could transform this country. If our offerings and devotion were more important to us than our political donations and social media posts, the Church would be much healthier. We must vote, but our votes will not make this country a more loving place.
So, the Catholic vote is dead, but I am not sure that it was ever meant to be alive. Saint John Chrysostom reminds us:
“If you are a Christian, no earthly city is yours. Of our City ‘the Builder and Maker is God.’ Though we may gain possession of the whole world, we are withal but strangers and sojourners in it all. We are enrolled in heaven: our citizenship is there! Let us not, after the manner of little children, despise things that are great, and admire those which are little!”
We live in America, but we are under the jurisdiction of a King. We can’t expect the leader of our country to fully bring about God’s justice (though we must submit ourselves to them), nor should we seek to replace God with a man. Our political system is fallen, and the Catholic vote may be dead, but our God is surely alive.
Ryan Both is a junior University Scholar from Lynnwood, Washington. He studies great texts, philosophy, and political science, and is researching the historical development of Christian economic ethics. You will be hard-pressed to find him without a cup of coffee, a book of patristic theology, and an open notebook and pen.