by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
One of the most impactful trips I ever took was during my freshman year at Greenville College, a little Free Methodist school in southern Illinois. We all piled onto busses and drove to Chicago to be immersed in a whirlwind tour of many of the largest religious traditions that the United States had to offer.
Almost all of us had grown up low-church Protestant, so even our first stop at Holy Name Cathedral was an experience foreign to us. We visited a synagogue for Friday evening service, we had an interesting (and frequently contentious) question and answer session with an imam at a mosque, and we learned about the Baha’i faith by visiting their beautiful temple on the North Shore.
Our trip ended on Sunday morning at a church that I will never forget – St. Benedict the African, which is a Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side that is primarily attended by African-Americans. The juxtaposition of all the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic liturgy, interspersed with a praise and worship time that would have not felt out of place in a Pentecostal tent revival was a once a lifetime experience. I have to admit, most of those eighteen year old farm kids from Southern Illinois struggled to clap to the beat and not feel out of place – myself chief among them.
What brought that to mind was the recent announcement that Archbishop Wilton Gregory was installed as the first African-American cardinal in the history of the Catholic church in November.
If you look at religion data enough you know that you can usually have a pretty good guess at someone’s voting preference just by knowing their race and religion, but I have to admit: I didn’t know anything about the political preferences of Black Catholics. Did they vote like their white counterparts? Or maybe they found a political kinship with their fellow Hispanic Catholics? Or, this may be a case where race mattered more and their political preferences are closely aligned with Black Protestants. I had to scratch the itch.
First, a broad look at the racial demographics of the Catholic church in the United States in 2020.
According to the Nationscape data, about 22% of all Americans identify as Catholic. That estimate is largely in line with other data sources that find that about 20-25% of adults identify as Catholics. That’s roughly the same size as evangelicals and about double the size of mainline Protestants.
Just about 3 in 5 Catholics in the United States are white, with another 30% identifying as Hispanic. Just about 5% self-identify as Asian, and 4% indicate that they are Black. In the general population, 12% of Americans select the Black option on surveys, so African-Americans are clearly underrepresented in the Catholic Church.
How do they vote? And how do they describe themselves politically? I wanted to provide three groups to compare Black Catholics to: White Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, and Black Protestants. Let’s start by looking at their distribution of votes in 2016.
White Catholics are the outlier here: 57% voted for Trump, just 39% for Clinton. In comparison, only 23% of Hispanic Catholic votes were for Trump, with 73% casting a ballot for Clinton. The Black Catholic vote is overwhelmingly a Democratic vote. 86% of Black Catholics went for Hillary Clinton – not that different from Black Protestants (89% for Clinton). This first cut of the data indicates that racial identity seems to matter a lot more than religious affiliation.
That also translates into political partisanship, as well.
Nearly three quarters of Black Catholics identify with the Democratic Party (74.2%) and another 10.6% chose the Independent label. That means just 15% of Black Catholics are Republicans. Compare that to White Catholics (50.8% are Republicans) and Hispanic Catholics (25.3% align with the GOP).
The closest comparison is between Black Catholics and Black Protestants. 76.5% of Black Protestants affiliated with the Democratic Party, which is not substantively different than the Black Catholic sample. Just over 10% of Black Protestants take on the Republican label – that’s five points lower than Black Catholics.
I noticed something interesting that differentiated Black Catholics from Black Protestants.
The share of Black Catholics who had a four year college degree was about five points higher than the share of Black Protestants who had a bachelor’s degree. I was wondering if that may help to explain some of the political divergence between the groups.
To test that I specified a simple logit model with approval of Donald Trump as the dependent variable. I controlled for age, gender, and household income. I used the same comparison groups as before: White Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, Black Catholics, and Black Protestants.
For White Catholics, higher levels of education lead to a diminished approval rating of Donald Trump. A White Catholic with a doctorate has a ten point lower probability of approval of the President than one who didn’t complete 8th grade.
For Hispanic Catholics and Black Catholics, an interesting result emerges: their approval lines cross as education rises. For Hispanics who have higher levels of education, Trump approval moves up from 26% to 34%. While the line for Black Catholics does pitch downwards the result is not statistically significant – said another way, education has no impact on Trump’s approval among Black Catholics.
However, the data does indicate that a highly-educated Black Catholic has lower Trump approval than a highly-educated Hispanic Catholic.
For Black Protestants, their approval of Donald Trump is incredibly low at all educational levels, but the more educated, the lower approval for the President goes. For a Black Protestant with a doctoral degree, the probability of approval is just about 15%. That’s about half the level of a similarly educated Black Catholic.
After poking around the data for a while I can confidently say that the politics of Black Catholics do not look very similar to the politics of other Catholics of any race, but clearly diverge the most from the political views of White Catholics. The closest comparison are Black Protestants, although that’s not a perfect reference group either because Black Catholics feel somewhat warmer toward President Trump than Black Protestants.
It’s clear that the American Catholic Church is going to have to grapple with a future in which the pews are going to be filled with more racial diversity as each year passes. Black Catholics may get a larger voice in the tradition as the white voices in the congregation continue to decline. It does seem that this will pull the church slightly leftward in its political orientation, which may form an even larger chasm between white Catholics and Catholics of color.