Another Lesson in Misunderstanding Catholic Voters
Calling itself “a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture,” The Barna Group just released what purports to be “Christian Preferences for the 2012 Republican Nomination.”
Barna’s polling of mainline Protestant, non-mainline Protestant (Evangelical), and Catholics is marked by an additional category called “Born again Christians.” These are defined not as people who describe themselves as “born again,” but as those “who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.”
“Born agains” are not the same to Barna as Evangelicals who are the 7% of the population “most concerned about moral issues (among other considerations) and are most involved in religious activity.” Barna describes the “born again,” a larger and less conservative group than Evangelicals, as “a pivotal group in the last three elections.”
Presumably, this category is Barna’s awkward attempt to parse out those Christians who, in spite of being Catholic or belonging to a mainline Protestant denomination, still believe in Jesus Christ, eternal life, and personal salvation.
Fair enough, but it’s doubtful Barna has successfully grasped the inner dynamics of the Catholic vote by adding evangelically-worded questions to its polling instrument. If Barna is interested in tagging those Christian respondents, including Catholics, who are religiously active and morally earnest in the manner of Evangelicals, then they need to change their approach.
Indeed, for a group as obviously sophisticated as Barna there is something almost willfully ignorant about their approach to polling Catholics. For example, the entire history of Catholic polling has demonstrated the crucial distinction in predicting their voting behavior with the regularity of Mass attendance. Since 1965, these polls show the higher the level of religious activism the more likely a Catholic will vote with the Republican Party.
If Barna researchers want to know which Catholic voters are most likely to join with Evangelicals in supporting socially conservative candidates, they should pay attention to this distinction. If they want to understand Catholic voters at all, they should realize their evangelically-worded questioning will not elicit accurate responses. Catholics are not taught to go around talking about accepting “Jesus Christ as their savior.”
Why does the Barna Group completely ignore the distinction between active and inactive Catholics, especially when they make such an effort to distinguish between “Born again Christians” and other Protestants? Their description of “Born again” means the polling instrument will not communicate with Catholic respondents in a reliable way.
Since Catholics make up the largest single Christian denomination in the United States, Barna’s findings are compromised from the start by its methodology. The general numbers are sound, those that report favorability ratings among Christians in general. But, once Barna starts reporting those same ratings among the various Christian groups, only those of mainline Protestant and non-mainline can be trusted.
This is why, for example, Barna notes that most Catholics have a positive view of President Obama (54% favorable, 45% unfavorable), while most Protestants do not (44% – 55%). This gives a false impression. If religiously active Catholics were distinguished from inactive, the numbers would dramatically change. In the 2008 presidential election, Obama won the overall Catholic vote decisively but lost the Mass-attending Catholic vote.
One wonders, also, how this basic distinction among Catholic respondents would have changed these findings:
“Catholics showed a different slant from Protestants. Among the Catholic populace, the favorites were Mr. Romney (15%) and Mr. Huckabee (13%). Mrs. Palin was the only other Republican in double digits (10%), trailed by Mr. Paul (7%) and Mr. Gingrich (6%). Among Protestants, though, the frontrunners were Mr. Huckabee (16%) and Mrs. Palin (16%), trailed by Mr. Romney (11%), Mr. Gingrich (8%) and Mr. Paul (7%).”
Would Mass attending Catholics have preferred Romney more or less? What if they liked Palin more? Now, that would have made the news! Also, it’s very likely that Gingrich’s numbers would have risen and Santorum’s have gotten on the radar screen among active Catholics.
On its web site, The Barna Group describes itself as “a visionary research and resource company located in Ventura, California.” If the researchers at Barna want to represent findings on the Christian population of this nation, it’s clear they need a back to basics lesson about how to speak to Catholics and how to understand their voting patterns.
By Deal Hudson, President of Catholic Advocate and author of Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States