By Brian Browne
The memory of the kitchen table from my childhood home in Jamaica, Queens is a vivid one. For my nine siblings and our Irish immigrant parents, the kitchen table was the center of everything. The crowded table was where some of our earliest life lessons were learned, it was where current events were regularly debated over memorable meals and where after school I pored over a daily newspaper that my Dad would bring home from a long shift with The MTA.
No matter how crowded that table got there was always room for more, be it another relative, a neighbor, or even a stranger. Hung prominently on the four walls of that kitchen were pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Patrick,Pope John Paul II, and President John F. Kennedy. That kitchen table and those pictures encapsulate the shaping of my early political ideology.
Faith, family, the Irish immigrant experience, and the importance of American citizenship were tenets emphasized by the words and example of my late parents. Although my folks were unable to vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960 as they had not yet completed the U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Process, they had a unique appreciation for his special place in American history despite his personal shortcomings. Although born rich, JFK was still one of us; he was Irish, came from a big Catholic family, and was a Democrat.
Given my first-generation Irish American Catholic experience, you may surmise that I am excited about the potential of another Democratic Party presidential candidate with Irish ancestry, Joe Biden, becoming just the second Catholic elected president of the United States.
I am not.
The “big tent” Democratic Party of my parents grows smaller. For a political party that frequently aligns with many social justice teachings of the Catholic Church — demonstrating solidarity for the undocumented, the unemployed, and underserved…that solidarity abruptly stops with the most vulnerable of our population, the unborn.
Not even the Democratic Party of the early 1990s endures or the rhetoric that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” that in 2012 was replaced with a party platform that calls for unequivocal support for abortion rights and opposition to any form of regulation.
That extreme shift ignores a Gallup Poll indicating one in three Democrats identifies as pro-life or another 2019 Gallup poll that found 51 percent of women consider themselves pro-life. For a party that rightly and regularly messages principles of diversity and inclusivity, there is an “all-or-nothing” approach when it comes to the polarizing issue of abortion.
On the other side of the political aisle are the Republican Party and its de facto political leader, President Donald J. Trump, whose policies and persona of the last four years garner mixed reviews and often conflict with the moral and social teachings of the Catholic Church. While strong on issues of the unborn, religious freedom, and school choice, the Trump Administration is profoundly weak on policies affecting immigrants, refugees, racial justice, climate change, poverty, and the death penalty, to name just a few.
It is no surprise that Catholic bishops do not endorse political parties or candidates. How could they? Instead, they use the document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship to share guidance on the political responsibility of Catholics as a teachable moment during an election year. All voters are well served by reading the 53-page document to learn just how broad the reach of Catholic social teaching is in our politics and how serious the challenges are facing both our nation and our Church.
Having a Catholic candidate on the ballot does not ensure political support from Catholic voters, nor should it. Despite the shrinking share of Catholics as part of the U.S. population — down to 20 percent from 23 percent a decade ago — according to Pew Research Center, Catholic voters are highly sought after by both major political parties. Catholics are generally split evenly between identifying as Democrats and Republicans and their votes generally mirror the vote of the general electorate with Catholics supporting the winning presidential candidates in nine of the last ten Presidential Elections.
The diversity of Catholics going to the polls in 2020 is as diverse as Catholics in the public square. Think about the fact that both the former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and current rising star of the Democratic Party, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, identify as Catholics and by their Baptism are so.
The Gingrich/AOC reference also serves as a reminder that White and Hispanic Catholic voters are vastly different. White Catholic registered voters are trending Republican while Hispanic Catholic voters strongly identify as Democrats.
Being Catholic is a challenge; and being a faithful Catholic voter is downright vexing. No single candidate or political party completely meets all the scrutiny of Catholic social teachings. Given the hyper-partisan nature of our political system, people of faith often find themselves at a crossroads or even a dead-end when it comes to casting a conscience-informed vote. The intersection of faith and politics can be a lonely road to travel.
For myself, the 2020 Presidential Election is like a game of musical chairs, and I feel that when the campaign stops — unlike my childhood kitchen — I will be left standing off to the side as there is no room at the political table for me.
Brian Browne is the Assistant Vice President for Government Relations at St. John’s University where he also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science.
*The views expressed here are entirely his own.