Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
As Pope Francis and President Obama prepare to meet for the first time tomorrow, many are left wondering what the two men will discuss. Immigration? Economic inequality? Religious freedom? Although the President and the leader of the Catholic Church disagree on some issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, they share a similar outlook when it comes to economic justice issues and immigration reform.
President Obama heads to the Vatican as the American Catholic Church is undergoing a dramatic transformation, due to Hispanic-Americans become an increasing presence in the Church. However, the ethnic character of the Catholic Church has shifted more dramatically in some regions than others. A strong majority of Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest are white, non-Hispanic (72 percent and 80 percent, respectively). In contrast, 60 percent of Catholics in the west are Hispanic.
What’s more, Hispanic Catholics differ significantly in myriad ways from white Catholics. For one, they are younger. The average age of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. is 43 years, compared to 52 years of age for white Catholics. Hispanic Catholics also tend to have lower levels of educational attainment. Fourteen percent of Hispanic Catholics have a college degree compared to 36 percent of white Catholics.
Political affiliation of the two demographics is also quite different. Fifty-five percent of Hispanic Catholics identify as Democrat and 75 percent voted for President Obama in 2012. In contrast, only 25 percent of white Catholics identify as Democrat and only four-in-ten (40 percent) voted for Obama, while 59 percent voted for Mitt Romney. However, there are a few instances in which white and Hispanic Catholics agree; a majority of both white and Hispanic Catholics favor a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally, an increase to the minimum wage, and same-sex marriage.