Changing political attitudes of American Catholics: 1970's to 1980's

Date of Completion

January 1993


Religion, General|American Studies|Political Science, General




This study examined change in the political attitudes of American Catholics between the 1970's and the 1980's. Two factors, differences among immigrant generations and religious involvement, were hypothesized to be paramount in explaining political change. This study also analyzed the effects of socio-economic variables as well as Catholics' positions on abortion and other key issues in bringing about change in political affiliations. The primary source of data was the American National Election Studies (ANES) which are national cross-section survey conducted each election year by the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.^ This study found that there was a significant shift in party affiliation among American Catholics from the 1970's to the 1980's: the percentage of Democrats decreased and the percentage of Republicans increased. This change can be traced primarily to the following factors: upward mobility (as measured by perceived social class); opinions on certain issues (holding a conservative position on the role of government in social welfare and an interventionist view on U.S. foreign involvement); and being from a first or third generation immigrant family. Interestingly, degree of religious involvement and opinion on the abortion issue showed no significance in explaining political change.^ The second immigrant generation (a quarter of American Catholics) remains loyal to the Democratic party, while the third immigrant generation has changed and started behaving like the third generation of other Americans. A new kind of first immigrant generation is also emerging which is different from the early twentieth century's first immigrant generation: it is coming from different areas of the world and is more Republican.^ American Catholics are becoming more middle class and these middle-class Catholics have, appropriately, changed political affiliation during the 1980's, from the Democratic Party to the Republican party. The working-class Catholics, on the other hand, are still loyal to the Democratic party.^ The 1980's were dominated by President Reagan and his policies. He articulated against government involvement in social welfare, and also presented a vision of an active American foreign policy. During the last two decades, American Catholics did not change their opinion on the issues of the role of government in world affairs and social welfare toward the conservative position. However, by presenting clear positions on these issues, Reagan apparently attracted those Catholics who held his views on these issues to the Republican banner. ^