How are religious voters likely to respond to a religious believer who is also a social liberal? Roman Catholics, with their strong commitment to the poor, should be open to a Democratic message of economic justice. A majority of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, support the goals of broader health coverage and increased humanitarian aid abroad. But the most intensely religious Americans of both traditions also tend to be the most conservative on moral issues such as abortion. And it is hard to imagine that these voters will be successfully courted by the most comprehensively pro-choice presidential candidate in American history.
That might change under one circumstance: if Rudy Giuliani were the Republican nominee. Whatever Giuliani promised concerning the appointment of conservative judges, a pro-choice Republican nominee would blur the contrast between the parties on abortion. And between two pro-choice options, a larger number of religious voters might support the one with a stronger emphasis on poverty -- because, after all, Jesus did have a lot to say about how we treat the poor.
This assessment only confirms that religious voters in general, and Catholics in particular, will have a difficult time settling in with either of the current frontrunners. After thirty years of throwing in their hat with the Republicans - and seeing a continual disintegration of the moral fabric and the economic soundness of our nation, in sum, the wholesale loss of self-governance - a Hillary-Guiliani ticket (oops, I forget, they would be in opposite parties) will be the nail in the corpse of the Frankenstein-like Christian-libertarian Republican coalition. A Guiliani candidacy, in particular, will bear out the accuracy of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? thesis, that religious conservatives have been taken for a ride by the Republican party in order to ensure electoral victory and favorable policy for business elites but never any actual policy that will shore up forms of actual self-governance. And, with all due apologies to my judicially-minded conservative friends, a few Supreme Court nominations won't cut it: there is room for disagreement on this front, but the Court seems quite often to trail the culture rather than to lead it. Sound constitutional interpretation is desirable, but the overturning of Roe won't alter the easy-going non-judgmental libertarianism that defines much of modern America. I'm all for overturning Roe, but the outcome will be a lot of states that continue the business as usual. The day after Roe is overturned, not much will change. Except that decades of intricately crafted judicial arguments and the efforts of the Federalist society will have to give way to the hard reality of changing culture. A libertarian President - Republican or Democrat - won't make that task any easier.
Gerson speculates that a Guiliani candidacy will be sufficient to alienate religious voters from the Republican party. I think that's right, but I don't think that a Democratic emphasis on poverty will be sufficient to persuade these voters that their religious views are being adequately reflected by Hillary. Catholics, in particular, if at times only residually hold a belief in subsidiarity, and will not accept the default argument of contemporary Democrats that all solutions to all problems lie with the Federal government. The grounds for the phenomenon of Reagan Democrats hasn't fundamentally gone away - the absence of a Republican who can appeal to religious believers does not translate into a default support for a liberal of Hillary's stripes. This does not mean that Catholics or even Christians are anti-government. It's high time that a candidate appear who understands that Federal government can be a partner in helping localities to better face problems that often arise from far outside local borders, recognizing that such localities - if subject to non-local forces - nevertheless remain best positioned to treat the particularities of those local problems. Unfunded mandates and Federal uniformity ("No Child Left Behind") are not the way to go; the willingness to support State efforts to strengthen conservation, fashion education appropriate to those localities, and to shore up local business in the face of "globalizing" and often rapacious business entities, is far better.
Let me speculate: if we have a Giullary/Hilliani Presidential race, there will almost surely be a third party candidate (and, I'm NOT talking about Bloomberg), and it will be someone who will attempt to appeal to the broad swath of religious traditionalists who will be alienated by these candidates and whose votes will be up for grabs. Odds are that this third party candidate will throw the election to Hillary (which is why Giuliani will almost certainly name someone like Huckabee as VP, though I don't think that will be enough). I don't know who this candidate might be, but as in times past, such a candidacy would have the potential of being the catalyst for a realignment. Perhaps not in this election but maybe in 2012, watch for the creation of a new party of Bryan (now Republican?) to combat the ascent of the libertarians.