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Inside Politics

The role of Catholic voters

By Bill Schneider
CNN Political Unit

John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Democratic Party
John F. Kerry

(CNN) -- When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he was worried about losing Protestant voters.

JFK was the second Roman Catholic candidate for president, and he remembered what happened to the first, Al Smith, in 1928.

Kennedy had to reassure Protestants.

"I do not speak for my church on public matters," Kennedy said in 1960. "And the church does not speak for me."

It worked.

In the previous election, Democrat Adlai Stevenson got 37 percent of the Protestant vote and a bare majority of Catholics. And he lost to President Eisenhower.

In 1960, the Democratic vote among Protestants held up, even though Kennedy was a Catholic. What put Kennedy over the top against Richard Nixon was his soaring support among his fellow Catholics -- nearly 80 percent.

Forty-four years later, the Democrats once again nominated a Catholic. But John Kerry's problems were mostly with the Catholic Church, which was critical of him for not letting church teachings dictate his politics.

Kerry had to reassure Catholics.

"I can't take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn't share that article of faith," said Kerry during an October 2004 debate.

What happened? Kerry's support among Protestants was slightly higher than JFK's -- 40 percent for Kerry among Protestants, 38 percent for JFK. The big difference was with Catholic voters.

The pride that swelled Kennedy's support among Catholics in 1960 did not seem to be there for Kerry in 2004. The Catholic vote went narrowly for George W. Bush, a Protestant.

What happened between 1960 and 2004 was that religion began to loom larger in U.S. politics -- not religious affiliation, whether you are a Protestant or Catholic, but religious observance, whether you are a regular or an occasional churchgoer.

Both Protestants and Catholics split, with regular churchgoers voting more Republican.

Nearly half of U.S. Catholics attend church regularly, and they gave Bush a 13-point lead over Kerry.

Kerry did better among Catholics who are not regular churchgoers, where he led Bush by 1 point.

Pope John Paul II aggressively promoted church doctrine on social issues. In many cases, that doctrine is conservative -- and it divides Catholics. Abortion is one of those issues.

Forty-two percent of churchgoing Catholics believe abortion should be illegal under any circumstances. Only 10 percent of less observant Catholics feel that way.

The Catholic Church was prominent in the struggle to keep Terri Schiavo alive.

"Governor [Jeb] Bush, as one Catholic to another, as one Catholic family to another, have moral courage. Step forward and save Terri Schiavo," said Brother Paul O'Donnell, a Franciscan monk who was a Schindler family spokesman, on March 25.

Sixty percent of churchgoing Catholics felt Schiavo's feeding tube should not have been removed. Among less observant Catholics, 36 percent felt that way.

But Catholic teachings about life are not invariably conservative.

"The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned in our nation because we do have alternate ways to protect society," said the Most Rev. Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Religious observance makes a difference here, too.

Only 29 percent of churchgoing Catholics favor the death penalty for murder. Among less observant Catholics, nearly two-thirds support the death penalty.

What's changed between 1960 and 2004?

Just this: Being Catholic matters less, politically. Being a religious Catholic matters more.

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