These events shed light on the political divisions in contemporary U.S. Catholicism. As Ross Douthat recently argued, lay Catholic intellectuals increasingly divide along complex ideological lines, and these divisions can push factions in partisan directions. Despite these trends, Catholic clerical leadership typically balks at taking stances that could be interpreted as partisan — even as it seeks to advance its principles in public life. By contrast, evangelical clerics are far more likely to embrace explicitly partisan positions, overwhelmingly in favor of Republican candidates.
Why are these approaches so different? In my new book, I find that various religious communities’ very different structures shape their relationships with political parties. Counterintuitively, I found that centralized, hierarchical faith communities are more likely to resist aligning themselves with political parties than their decentralized, egalitarian counterparts. That’s why Catholic clergy tend to resist partisan co-optation while Sunni Muslims and evangelical Protestants tend to align themselves with political parties, as I’ll explain.
Decentralized religious groups have trouble reining in partisanship
For my research, I conducted in-depth case studies of religious parties in Mexico and Turkey, based on archival sources and field interviews, and also undertook a statistical analysis of 220 elections in 38 Catholic- and Sunni-majority countries, from 1990 to 2012.
Decentralized religious communities, like Sunni Muslims and evangelical Christians in the United States today, face a dilemma. Individual preachers can benefit from allying themselves with the political party that explicitly caters to devout believers. By making such alliances, preachers can expand their influence and enhance their personal appeal to highly motivated activists. Competition among clerics for that group of followers can lead them to adopt radical partisan stances, such as endorsing false narratives about election fraud.
However, these dynamics have a downside for the denomination as a whole. Such alliances can limit their denomination’s appeal, alienate moderates within its ranks, and provoke damaging conflicts with secular authorities. Moreover, if a corruption scandal engulfs the allied politicians or parties, the denomination’s reputation will probably take a hit as well. Since these costs and risks are distributed among the whole religious community while only the individual religious leaders get the benefits, individual members are tempted to pursue partisan activism even when the community would collectively benefit from restraint.
Thus, in Turkey, prominent Sunni leaders have repeatedly gambled by making alliances with Islamist parties — even if it can trigger violent secularist reactions and dangerous conflicts with power-hungry politicians. And in the United States, many evangelical leaders remained outspoken in endorsing President Donald Trump even as his supporters broke into the Capitol.
Hierarchical religions can restrain impulses to ally with politicians or parties
In contrast, highly organized religious communities such as the contemporary Catholic Church are better equipped to manage partisanship’s temptations. Individual clerics occasionally adopt blatantly partisan positions. However, they’re rarely supported by national conferences of bishops or by the Vatican, since these authorities would fully bear the risks and costs of radicalization and partisan capture. Thus, during Mexico’s hotly contested 2000 presidential campaign, which promised to bring an end to 70 years of secularist hegemony, the conservative challenger’s attempt to use the Virgin of Guadalupe as a campaign symbol faced resistance not only from secularists but also from the Catholic hierarchy. In the United States today, virtually no Catholic leaders have endorsed the “big lie” or QAnon. The few who have done so gain notoriety precisely because they are openly defying the church hierarchy.
It takes work to stay above the partisan fray
The potential USCCB statement was remarkable because it came from a national conference. Its sponsors argued that it should not be seen as a partisan declaration. It was coldly received by the Vatican, where Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, objected to the notion that abortion and euthanasia are “the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics.”
Catholicism has not always avoided partisanship. The Catholic Church spent much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries fighting partisan battles against a diverse array of nationalist, liberal and socialist opponents. These conflicts were often devastating for the church, leaving it marginalized or entangled with brutal dictators, as happened in Spain with Gen. Francisco Franco or in Argentina during the so-called “Dirty War.”
The Catholic Church’s global shift away from partisan politics in the late 20th century came in part because of doctrinal reforms associated with the Second Vatican Council. But the church has also worked to increase coordination among bishops, not least by strengthening national conferences like the USCCB. The process has also been aided by technology: In the Internet era, it’s much harder for a single bishop to adopt stances contrary to the Vatican’s.
Secularist authorities often want to contain religion by suppressing religious leaders, as happened in Mexico and Turkey in the early 20th century. But when governments use their power to weaken religious authorities, those figures can become unwilling or even unable to manage those who want to dive into partisan politics. Fragmented, lay-dominated religious communities are more susceptible to partisan demagogues and conspiracy theorists.
That brings us back to the briefly proposed — and quickly withdrawn — USCCB statement. Catholic bishops will always have opinions about public policy. They regularly make their stances clear without adopting explicitly partisan positions. In doing so, they can help patrol the separation of church and state. The potential USCCB statement was remarkable because it endangered this position. The bishops quickly corrected it.
L. Felipe Mantilla is an associate professor and St. Petersburg campus associate chair of political science in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida, and author of “How Political Parties Mobilize Religion: Lessons from Mexico and Turkey” (Temple University Press, 2021).