Politicians Converting to Catholicism
Meet the ‘evangelical’ Catholics who are remaking the GOP
ReligionNews.com | June 16, 2014
How many voters know that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is a Roman Catholic? Or that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a Southern Baptist, not a Latino Catholic? Or that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio worships at both a Catholic parish and an evangelical church?
More importantly, does it matter?
Actually, it does in today’s Republican Party, where a number of factors have forged a new religious identity that supersedes familiar old categories.
These prominent Republicans are emblematic of the new religious amalgam that, in many instances, has helped refashion denominational differences that were once almost insurmountable. Look no further than the stunning Virginia primary victory of Dave Brat, a Catholic with degrees from a Reformed Protestant college in Michigan and Princeton Theological Seminary, who took down House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last week.
Running in a conservative district in the Richmond suburbs, Brat is described as both a Catholic and Calvinist, labels that would be considered incompatible in almost any realm. He’s a champion of a resurgent movement among Catholic intellectuals that seeks to marry Catholic social teaching with free-market economic libertarianism.
The challenge for Catholic politicians might be finding the balancing act between a Catholic and an evangelical appeal, said Amy E. Black, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.
“While the Catholic faith used to be a liability, it might even be an asset now,” Black said. “Evangelicals are a solid voting bloc in the Republican Party, whereas Catholics are likely to be swing voters. Republican presidential candidates know they need to appeal to evangelical voters, and they want to win over as many Catholic voters as they can.”
Evangelicals have been relatively predictable in the past few elections, while Catholics have been less so. Although Catholic voters have historically tended to be Democratic, recent elections have shown them to be the ultimate swing vote. They backed Al Gore in 2000 (50 percent), George W. Bush in 2004 (52 percent), Barack Obama in 2008 (54 percent) and again in 2012 (50 percent), according to the Pew Research Center.
Evangelicals, on the other hand, have been much more consistently Republican — 79 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 73 percent for John McCain in 2008 and 79 percent for Bush in 2004.
The newfound Catholic appeal among the GOP can be seen in the number of high-profile conversions to Rome. Jeb Bush, who comes from a classic blue-blood Episcopal family dynasty, converted to Roman Catholicism years ago. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was raised Hindu but converted to Catholicism. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback converted to Catholicism, but his wife and family still attend evangelical churches. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was a Southern Baptist for most of his life, converted to his third wife’s Roman Catholicism in 2009.
More than 50 years after John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism stirred fears that he would be more loyal to the pope than to the people, Catholicism isn’t nearly the political liability it once was.
“Growing up, the fact that someone was Catholic would give someone pause,” said veteran GOP strategist Ralph Reed, whose “Road to Majority” conference this week will feature a keynote address from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Catholic. “Now, there are a lot of evangelicals who greatly admired Pope John Paul II and some would look to Pope Francis for leadership.”
What changed? For one, leading Catholics and evangelicals decided they could do more together than working against each other. Twenty years ago, former Nixon aide Charles Colson and the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of the ecumenical magazine First Things, started the group Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the cross-pollination it promoted is having practical effects.
“The alliance forged in the trenches between evangelical Protestants and faithful Catholics in the struggle to defend human life and marriage has blossomed into much greater than a mere marriage of convenience,” said Princeton University’s Robert P. George, the de facto leader of the Catholic intellectual political movement. “What has emerged is a spiritual fellowship that I think was not anticipated at the beginning by anybody.”