Placards and campaign stickers sit on a table at the Latino regional headquarters for the Obama campaign during election day of the U.S. presidential election in Milwaukee on Nov. 6, 2012.
Sometimes an academic book is ahead of political commentary. Such is the case with “Blessing La Política,” a 2012 book published by Praeger about the religious factor in Latino voting. I know: I am co-author. The overwhelming evidence that the Latino community played a decisive role in reelecting President Obama was predicted before the election in the pages of “Blessing La Política.” More importantly, the book traces with social science patience why more than 75 percent identification with the Democrats is not a passing phenomenon among Latino Catholics.
Based on post-election numbers posted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, Latino Catholics were more likely to vote for Obama than Latino evangelicals, hence the difference between 71 percent of all Latinos and 75 percent of Latino Catholics. The book explains why Latinos, the largest and most dynamic subset of U.S. Catholics are firmly in the social justice wing of Catholicism. White Catholics actually preferred Mitt Romney over Obama, 59 to 40 percent; but when including Latinos, the Catholic margin shifted to the Obama column, 50 to 48 percent – more or less the national average.
In statistical terms, there is no “Catholic vote” different from the national pattern, unless you use the Latino/white divide, in which the Latino Catholic vote is highly significant. The special focus on Latino Catholics, as distinguished from Latino evangelicals and Protestants, makes this book a pioneer effort in political science.
The book utilizes the civic engagement model, which is an academic name for an approach that looks behind voting results to the ways churchgoers learn about the political process. At meetings to raise money or solve problems of maintenance, people use rules of order, keep minutes, elect leaders, and make many decisions by democratic voting procedures. Applied to Latino persons of faith, these lessons often make them politically sophisticated about the democratic process, sometimes with an awareness that bests groups with higher socio-economic and educational status. Thus, the church also serves as the political training ground for the community’s civic participation.
Contrary to some presumptions, there is no drop-off for Latino Catholics in the positive effect of this engagement when compared to Latino evangelicals. The difference lies in content, because Latino Catholics place great importance on government’s role in achieving social justice, while Latino evangelicals are more like white Catholics and evangelicals in emphasizing issues like abortion and legalized same-sex marriage when they vote.
Since Catholicism recognizes that no one political party perfectly expresses church teaching, Catholics have the freedom to choose either social justice issues or abortion as long as they respect the importance that both have to the integrity of the Gospel message. Thus, a social justice preference favors Democrats; the sexual issues decision favors Republicans. Deciding which set of values takes priority is a prudential political decision for the citizen voter and bishops can help inform that decision, but they can’t substitute their own. (Gaudium et Spes, 43)
The book shows that with the rising number of Latinos and Latinas within the Catholic Church in America, the social justice wing will be growing.
“Blessing La Política,” while an academic book, also presents vivid descriptions of the vitality of Latino Catholic parishes. It is in this church setting that Latinos and Latinas come in direct contact with families where some members lack immigration documents; where poverty casts a specter over survival; where access to education is prized as a step on the ladder upwards to prosperity; where inattention to community needs by government agencies wreaks havoc on neighborhood stability.
Latino Catholic civic engagement is stirred by such challenges, which are actual reality and not the imagined experience of “others.” People of faith, it may be said, utilize Catholic teaching on social justice to right such wrongs. It is understandable that suburban Catholics removed from these circumstances can adopt differing priorities; but that does not mean that Latino Catholics are to be denied legitimacy in deciding what must be done. One might say that Latino Catholics embody Catholicism’s preferential option for the poor (Sollicitudo rei socialis) and our collective testimony is a manifestation of Catholic faith and ministry.
Moreover, because the Gospel focuses most clearly on the physical dimension of suffering among the poor (Matthew 25), fidelity to scripture renders it impossible for a true Catholic to stop caring for the poor among us in order to focus on abortion. That is the only way we all of us Catholics can start blessing la política.