Princeton, Religion, and Politics — The Politics of Catholics and Protestants on Campus

by Toni Alimi ’13

Especially in recent elections, religion has come to be an integral part of the American political scene. Countless polls show the relationships and correlations between voting patterns and religious affiliation, religious involvement, and opinions on religion. A December 2009 Gallup poll showed that 49 percent of people who considered themselves “Highly Religious” self-affiliate with the Republican party, compared with only 26 percent of people who considered themselves “Not Religious.”

One interesting phenomenon, however, is the relation between Catholicism, Protestantism, and politics on campuses and across the country.  An April 2009 Pew Research Poll showed that 38 percent of Protestants support legalized abortion, compared to 47 percent of Catholics. Among white Evangelicals, the Protestant number drops to 23 percent, while non-Hispanic Catholics supported legalized abortion at a rate of 47 percent to 42 percent. A 2009 Quinnipiac poll showed Catholics in favor of same-sex civil unions by 68 to 27 percent, while evangelicals opposed these unions 61 to 34 percent. The numbers of those in favor of gay adoption for each group are very similar. These numbers would seem to indicate that Evangelical Protestants are more politically active and charged than their Catholic counterparts on social conservative issues.

Nevertheless, when it comes to conservatism on Princeton’s campus, there is a palpable disconnect in the political involvement of Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. Catholic Christians seem to have a level of political involvement in conservative organizations on campus that is far higher than that of non-Catholic Christians. One needs only to look to the biggest conservative organizations on campus as evidence of that — the leadership of Princeton Pro-Life and the Anscombe Society is overwhelmingly Catholic. All four of the executive officers of the Anscombe Society are Catholic, as are all six of the Princeton Pro-Life officers.

As an evangelical Protestant myself, I don’t complain — none of these organizations are expressly Catholic, and all are absolutely open and welcome to the involvement of non-Catholics in their organizations. In an email correspondence with Professor Robert George (a Catholic), he noted, “My impression in recent years has been that there has been an especially large contingent of Catholic students involved, especially in the pro-life and pro-chastity organizations.  But even in these organizations, there have been student leaders from the other traditions of faith.” For example, two of the College Republican Officers are Jewish, and only one —Tiernan Kane — is a Catholic.

Understanding why this disparity exists is not simple, especially because individuals do not neatly fit into the demographic or religious boxes defined by pollsters. However, recent discussions with various Catholic and Protestant campus leaders, as well as people involved in conservative political organizations, revealed some possible explanations.

The Constituency of Religious Organizations

George says that he had noted this trend between religion and politics especially “in recent years.” This suggests that it is neither a traditional phenomenon, nor is it necessarily perpetual. Perhaps the current dominance of Catholics within conservative campus groups resulted when established members of the Aquinas Institute (Princeton’s Catholic chaplaincy), who were heavily involved in campus politics, presented freshman Aquinas members with the opportunity for political activism. This created a self-perpetuating phenomenon, where new members of Aquinas are quickly integrated into Princeton’s conservative political movement. This reinforcing cycle never occurred in Evangelical groups on campus, since members were not as active leaders in conservative campus politics. Unfortunately, this theory is not complete since it fails to explain how this self-perpetuating cycle began, and does not address the fact that in the past there have been non-Catholics leading conservative political organizations.

The Nature of the Religions

In my discussions with Brian Stephan, Ministry Coordinator of Aquinas, we came to the conclusion that Catholicism in its nature is far more centralized than evangelical Protestantism. In the Magisterium and the Pope, Catholics have a set of religious authorities that help to dictate and guide what and how the church body thinks and discusses many of the social issues that dominate political discourse. This centralization helps Catholicism maintain a political front that is strongly unified by the teachings of the church. This unification means that Catholics are more certain of what Church doctrine dictates in the political arena. It is this clarity that leads to higher Catholic involvement in politics.

While evangelical Protestants are unified on certain political issues, the lack of a central church may explain evangelical politics at Princeton. The problem with this explanation is that nationally, evangelicals are more unified on typical “conservative” issues than Catholics. This is evidenced through the poll numbers discussed earlier concerning social conservative issues.  Protestant Evangelicals, you will recall, were more likely to oppose legalized abortion and gay adoption than Catholics.

The Nature of Campus Organizations

In my discussions of the nature of campus organizations with Princeton Evangelical Fellowship president Alexander Hwang, we concluded that there exists a distinct philosophical difference of opinion in the role of politics in religion between Catholic and Evangelical groups. While Hwang acknowledges the importance of the involvement of Christians in politics, he is wary of evangelical organizations appearing expressly political. “When you are active in both politics and religion,” he notes, “people looking from the outside begin to connect the two.” In opposition to Hwang’s fear, George embraces Catholic campus activism claiming that “Our obligation as people of faith is to stand up and speak out for what we believe to be true and right. Of course, this need not be done, and should not be done, in a harsh or condemnatory spirit. It must be done with love and respect, and with an openness to engage with others in honest debate and discussion. But it must be done.”

The willingness of evangelical Christians across the country to actively participate in conservative political causes suggests that most evangelical leaders would agree with George’s statement. The disagreement lies not in the ideas themselves, but in how best to bring these ideas to fruition. Is the most effective method to advocate politics implicitly within the religious organization, or explicitly independent of religion?

The Nature of Princeton

Perhaps the most satisfying claim, however, is one that both Brian Stephan and Mark Grobaker, Aquinas Ministry Coordinators, invoked in my discussions with them. They claim that while Catholics are generally more willing to appeal to reason and natural law in their discussion of politics, evangelical Protestants more often appeal to religion and the Bible. In a liberal campus such as Princeton, it may be easier for the former to find a political stump than the latter. This discrepancy also might explain why the national scene does not reflect the disparity of political involvement at Princeton: the nation as a whole is more willing to listen to appeals to specifically religious authority than a college campus. Grobaker is also operations manager for the Tory.

Conclusion

The significant national support for conservatism among religious citizens demonstrates the importance of connecting religion to politics in support of conservative causes. Yet, at the same time, the two must not be confused in order not to alienate people from the cause of religious groups. Herein lies the rub. The difference in political involvement of Catholics and Protestants on campus seems to come down not to a difference in philosophy, but rather one of strategy. It is difficult to discern which strategy is more effective for incorporating people into religious groups while maintaining a level of honesty about politics. The challenge for religious organizations is to stand for truth — in the words of George — “with love and respect, and with an openness to engage with others in honest debate and discussion.”

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