With just days left before Iowa casts the first votes in the presidential nominating contests, Republican candidates have been crisscrossing the state touting their Christian bona fides, appealing to the group of voters who could make or break several campaigns. Part of this ritual includes rattling off a list of prominent Christian leaders who have come out in support of their campaigns.
On Tuesday, for example, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, who ispolling well with Evangelical voters, bagged the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the influential Liberty University and son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
US Sen. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, who speaks frequently of his Southern Baptist faith, has been rewarded with endorsements from Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
But there are few endorsements from prominent Catholics, even though four of the remaining GOP candidates — and one Democrat, Martin O’Malley — are Roman Catholic.
A reluctance to foster divisions over politics, the Catholic vote split between the major political parties, and the fact that most Catholics don’t want their leaders to endorse candidates all serve to discourage overt political support.
The fight for Evangelical votes has been intense, and for good reason. When Iowa Republicans caucused in 2012, 57 percent of participants were Evangelical Christians. Just 18 percent of the state’s population is Catholic.
But Catholic bishops still garner media attention, and the Church’s social services infrastructure is vast. Backing from the head of a large Catholic hospital network or prestigious university, for instance, could be seen as a powerful nod of approval to Catholic voters.
Catholic leaders have so far stayed quiet during the 2016 contest, occasionally weighing in on some issues — a few bishops have criticized Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric — but in general, avoiding discussion of specific candidates.
Brian Burch, president of Catholic Vote, said lay and ordained Evangelicals often see steering fellow believers toward particular candidates as part of their job, whereas Catholic priests and even some lay heads of Catholic organizations are much more reticent to engage directly in politics.
“They don’t see a need to invite the sorts of divisions that politics often brings,” he said.