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Student voters consider faith

Megan Doyle | Monday, November 5, 2012



Before senior Chris Damien turned to news organizations like CNN, Fox News or MSNBC to inform his decisions for the election, he turned to another source – the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

For Damien, life issues and policies about marriage are important political considerations this Election Day. But more importantly for the senior philosophy major is being an informed Catholic voter on all the issues at stake in this election, not just one or two.

“It’s very clear what the Church teaches,” Damien said. “It’s not a secret. It’s not hard to find. … And obviously you’re not going to find someone who agrees with everything the Church teaches. So it’s really important to look at what each candidate has said or promoted in relation to the [Catholic Church’s] teachings and to make an informed decision.

“Being a lazy voter has never been a real part of the Catholic sensibility.”

Damien is one Notre Dame student who is casting his ballot in this election. He is also one Catholic who is casting his ballot in this election. The overlap between political belief and faith comes to a poignant crossroads on a campus of a Catholic university like Notre Dame, but students and professors considered that intersection to be a more personal and dynamic one today than it has been historically in the United States.

A traditional vote

Political science professor David Campbell said Catholic voters tended to be Democrats historically because they occupied a lower social class that did not find much support from Republican candidates.

“Over the last 50 years or so, American Catholics have lived the American dream in most cases,” Campbell said. “A group that was once isolated to neighborhoods and was a blue collar population, we’ve seen Catholics move to the suburbs and have white collar jobs.”

Political science professor Darren Davis agreed, calling the historical working class that tend to favor more liberal economic plays the “New Deal Coalition” of voters.

“Catholics’ voting patterns have largely reflected their working class backgrounds, but one could argue that their Democratic Party affiliation began to crystallize with the election of John F. Kennedy,” he said.

Now, Campbell said, wealthier voters are more likely to be Republican, and Catholics are more likely to be wealthier members of society.

“Over the last 20 to 30 years or so, we’ve seen a divide emerge within the Catholic population that actually perfectly mirrors the divide you find in the national population,” Campbell said. “Catholics that are more religiously devout … they are more likely to lean more Republican than Democrat.”

History professor Mark Noll said the influence of religion in national politics ebbs and flows across election seasons.

“I think this year [faith] is less significant than it was in 2008 or even 2000 because of the concentration on economic matters,” he said.  

Noll teaches a course this semester on “Religion and American Politics,” and he said history class creates a “learning season” on the way religion affects hot-button issues and election discourse.

“I’m impressed with their seriousness. … They seem to be presenting these positions after the kind of clear thought and careful agenda setting that a democracy requires,” Noll said. “So in the extent that they are representing the Notre Dame campus, I’m quite optimistic about intelligent, morally-based voting, morally-aware voting by the Notre Dame students.”

‘A public servant’

Senior Kara Mathis said she was “pleasantly surprised” with the balanced debate she has experienced as a voter on campus this semester. When her sociology professors have considered the election and campaign politics this semester, she said, faith has not been a dominant part of discourse in the classroom.

“For the most part, people are respectful to keep [faith] of it out of the debate, especially in the classroom,” she said. “Personally, if I’m at my house or if I’m with my friends, that may be brought up more.”

Even in looking at the larger scale of policy in the country, Mathis said moral values will overlap with the way an individual voter views debate over important issues.

“On the issue of health care, my personal belief, my Christian belief, says that you are there to help those who can’t help themselves,” she said. “In that case, I wholeheartedly believe in universal health care policies that would help those to get themselves back on their feet.”

But for Mathis, her religion needs to be separate than her political consciousness.

“For me, I try and look at my political views through the lens of a public servant,” Mathis said. “These officials are elected to serve citizens whether or not they pray to the same god or they read the same religious script. I try and look at the bigger picture and realize that my beliefs … are not the only religious beliefs represented by the American people, so when I look at issues, especially social issues, I try to understand it through the country as a whole.”

Faith, she said, is personal. Politics is not.

“I try and live my life in a Christian way, but my faith is based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” she said. “It’s not based on a decision made by someone next to me. So I guess that’s how I look at political issues as well.”

The day after Election Day

During this election, the economy has been a dagger for both parties and a grenade in the hands of voters watching their candidates debate.

“Abortion, gay marriage and other issues that resonate with Catholics have been overshadowed by economic issues,” Davis said. “Moral and social issues have not been prominent in the presidential debates and campaign ads tended to minimize these issues.”

The issue of Catholicism has moderately resurfaced in this election among the two major candidates for vice president – Democratic incumbent Vice President Joe Biden and Republican candidate Paul Ryan are both Catholics. During the vice presidential debate Oct. 11, moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News threw a curveball at the two men.

“This debate is, indeed, historic,” she said. “We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religious has played in your own personal views on abortion.”

The question, Campbell said, exposed voters to two different perspectives on an issue from Catholic candidates – and two different perspectives on applying personal belief to political policy.

“The question was actually quite an odd one,” Campbell said. “Martha Raddatz did not ask, ‘What is your policy on abortion?’ … [She asked,] ‘Talk about your personal feelings on abortion and your Catholic faith.’ Really what should matter is their policies.”

Davis said students, like candidates, must evaluate their own beliefs to dictate their own individual votes.

“My advice to Notre Dame students is this: Faith and religious beliefs are extremely important, and they should be at the heart of all political decisions,” Davis said.

The ballots will be cast, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, on Tuesday. And then comes the day after Election Day.

“A lot of people think that they vote and their responsibility as a citizen is done once Election Day comes, but it’s not,” Damian said. “We’re constantly members of society, so we have a responsibility to live out those values and ideals in every aspect of our lives. It’s important that what we care about in politics also comes out in our daily lives.”