When George W. Bush meets with the Pope Friday at the Vatican, the third such visit of this president's term, it will be tempting to see a non-Catholic president reaching out to Roman Catholic voters as he runs for reelection.
Catholics represent nearly 23 percent of American voters; both major presidential campaigns are ramping up their efforts to woo Catholics, along with other faith groups. And with Democratic Sen. John Kerry poised to become the first Catholic major-party nominee since John F. Kennedy, the nexus of politics and Catholicism is under the microscope to a degree unprecedented in more than 40 years.
But a profound shift in voter behavior since the 1960 election has rendered the old analysis meaningless. "There is no real Catholic vote to speak of," says John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University. "The real split in American politics today is between those [of all faiths] who attend services frequently and those who go seldom or not at all."
In 1960, when Kennedy was elected, the divide between Catholics and white Protestants was real. Three-fourths of Catholics supported Kennedy and three-fourths of white Protestants backed the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon.
Today, non-Latino voters who identify themselves as Catholics - without regard to frequency of church attendance - break down along political lines that tend to mirror the electorate as a whole. When Latino Catholics are factored in, the "Catholic vote" leans Democratic in general and toward Kerry for president.
Even the stickiest of issues that go to the center of the intersection of religion and politics show Catholic views virtually identical to overall opinion. On abortion, 34 percent of Catholic voters and 36 percent of all voters believe it should be "generally available to those who want it," according to a new CBS News poll. On the issue of whether it's "appropriate for political candidates to talk about their religious beliefs as part of their political campaigns," 49 percent of Catholic voters said it was, versus 50 percent of voters overall.
For Bush, the task of reaching "his" Catholic voters is easier; Bush Catholics gather regularly in one place, either for mass or other church functions. Kerry's Catholics are less likely to gather regularly.
From day one, the Bush White House has reached out to conservative religious leaders as a core activity of its time in office. Now that it's battling hard for a second term, the Bush team is reaching out to religious voters so aggressively that congregations could face challenges to their tax-exempt status.
On Tuesday, an e-mail from a Bush-Cheney campaign official in Pennsylvania provided to reporters by Bush opponents demonstrated this level of outreach. The e-mail asked Bush supporters in that crucial battleground state to "identify 1,600 'Friendly Congregations' " where "a volunteer can help distribute general information to other supporters."
Groups that favor strict separation of church and state cite tax law as forbidding such activity. The Bush campaign says the outreach was to individuals, not churches.
This flap shows how hard the Bush campaign is working to mobilize its religious base, especially in states that could swing the election. In 2000, Pennsylvania went for Al Gore over Bush; the state's large Catholic population went for Gore, 53 percent to 46 percent. If Pennsylvania Catholics had gone the other way, Bush would have won the state.
Kerry, whose support for abortion rights has put him at odds with some Catholic bishops who would deny him communion over the issue, is mobilizing his religious constituencies later in the game. His campaign hired a "director of religious outreach," Mara Vanderslice, a month ago.
But the junior senator from Massachusetts is not about to go see the pope. Even Bush's papal visit, five months before the election, raised some eyebrows in the diplomatic community, given that the Vatican usually likes to avoid mid-campaign visits, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
Still, according to Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, there is good reason for Bush to see the pope while in Rome on other business. "If you don't ask for the meeting, you look like you're ducking potential criticism," says Mr. Hudson, who has frequent contact with the White House. "So it's natural for President Bush to ask for a meeting with the Holy Father, given that they're allies in almost everything."
The Vatican's opposition to the US invasion of Iraq "is a done deal," Hudson notes, and he expects the issue of rebuilding in Iraq to come up. In a meeting Hudson attended with the president last week, he said Bush was asked about his trip to the Vatican and replied: "The Pope will have a lot to say. I will listen."
In the end, the president's meeting with the pope isn't likely to sway votes. "The visit only serves to reinforce people's existing point of view," says Professor White of Catholic University.
Bush's biggest problem in the past couple of months, he adds, is that he has not appeared in control of events - so visiting with the Pope allows him to be seen on the world stage, projecting an "image of being a dynamic and decisive figure."