Before there were soccer moms or NASCAR dads, there were Catholics. Once a Democratic bastion, they have been the bellwether voting bloc for the last forty years. As Ross Douthat of The New York Times notes, “Exit polling tells us that in every presidential election since 1972, the candidate who has won Catholics has won the popular vote as well.

Now the religious right is targeting Catholics with a narrow message of what Catholic teachings should mean in the political realm.

The Family Research Council, a socially conservative advocacy organization, has released a “2012 Catholic Vice-Presidential Voter Guide.” This seems especially relevant since both Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) are Catholic and were chosen partly for their putative appeal to Midwestern Catholic voters. FRC defines Catholic issues in a way that is far more congenial to Republicans.

They list nine “Intrinsic Evils,” of which eight favor the Republican position: various manifestations of opposition to abortion, gay rights and stem cell research. The one outlier is torture of foreign prisoners of war, which Vice President Biden, like the Catholic Church, opposes. (FRC could not find a position on torture taken by Ryan.)

Then there are “Prudential Judgments” on which good Catholics may disagree. These include more issues on which Catholic teaching would line up with Democratic values, such as amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Curiously, FRC offers the proportions of Biden’s and Ryan’s income that each gave to charity, but no other mention of helping the poor. It’s as if the few thousand dollars Ryan gave matters more than the trillions he would cut from social programs.

The justifications for how FRC determined what is a Catholic issue and where the candidates stand on them are provided in a “supporting document.”

Given the Catholic Church’s long commitment to aiding the needy, the absence of economic policy seems a bit odd. Ryan, after all, has been criticized by Catholic bishops because his budget would cut funding to essential anti-poverty programs such as Medicaid and food stamps to pay for tax cuts for the rich. In fact, the voter guide would give a Catholic the false impression that Ryan actually supports more aid to the poor than Biden, because he has given more to charity. (Although, as the supporting document unintentionally demonstrates, many of those charities—such as the Boy Scouts and crisis pregnancy centers—have little if anything to do with addressing poverty.)

FRC’s response is that the Catholic Church only holds a vague notion that poverty should be ameliorated, not specific positions on how to do so. “Ryan makes the argument it’s not that you don’t help people in need rise out of poverty, it’s how you do that,” says Tom McCluskey, senior vice president of FRC Action and co-author of the voter guide. “It’s a political difference that has no relevance to Catholic teaching.”

I’m no expert in Catholic teaching, but I beg to differ. The church has repeatedly supported federal anti-poverty programs, such as the expansion of Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, that Biden supports and Ryan opposes. Even taking at face value Ryan’s claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy will grow the economy and thus lift more poor people into jobs, or better-paying ones, there will always be unemployed people, especially the disabled. The fact that Ryan would decimate their essential social services is fundamentally at odds with any concern for the vulnerable.

But McCluskey clearly believes in this distinction. He says:

Catholic doctrine is an official edict of the Catholic Church. On the issue of life, for example, there is only black and white, there is no gray [as is there is on economic justice]. A pro-life universal health care bill was supported by US Conference of Catholic bishops, but opposed by many individual bishops and that did not hurt their standing in the Church.

If a Catholic bishop were to take an opposing view on the life of the unborn, that would be unheard of and going against Catholic teaching. Support for increasing Medicaid funding would be more like Catholic opinion [than Catholic doctrine].

McCluskey also says the voter guide’s scope was limited by available information. “We couldn’t compare apples and oranges. If Ryan had a position we need one from Biden.” The one exception they made, given how essential it is Catholic teaching, is for torture. That notwithstanding, the general impression conveyed by the voter guide is that a good Catholic would prefer Paul Ryan, since Ryan’s decidedly un-Catholic fondness for warfare and opposition to welfare are not mentioned.

FRC is currently just sending the guide to thought leaders in the Catholic community such as priests and groups at Catholic universities. “We’re not at this point sending it to voters but if it’s financially possible, it’s definitely something we’re going to look at,” says McCluskey.

It might not even matter if they do spread it far and wide. There is tendency among journalists and political professionals to act as if the Catholic vote’s priorities reflect Catholic theology. The lazy conventional wisdom is that this is because Catholics follow their church’s teachings and thus hold commitments that are orthogonal to the partisan divide. Here’s Mark Stricherz, of

While experts define the Catholic vote in many ways, I define it as a vote that mirrors the social teaching of the hierarchy, especially the American bishops: culturally conservative, economically populist or liberal, and moderate to liberal on foreign policy.

Stricherz is approvingly cited by Douthat as a premise to Douthat’s argument that Obama has failed to appeal to these voters because he has emphasized his commitment to women’s rights and gay rights. Also in The New York Times, and also cited by Douthat, is Jim Arkedis, a Catholic Democrat who works for the Progressive Policy Institute. Arkedis writes:

The key to winning the Catholic vote is to understand its composition—litmus-test abortion voters, moderates, women and Hispanics—and to aim to carry persuadable Catholics by healthy margins in crucial swing states. The Obama campaign should tread lightly, however, and resist any poll-driven urge to drive a wedge between the faithful and official church positions on women’s issues or same-sex marriage. Divisive messaging probably won’t fly among most Catholics, who may grumble about their religious leaders’ positions, but don’t seek overt separation from them. I can’t say that there’s any scientific evidence to support this theory, but it comes from my observations over a lifetime in the Catholic community.

The Obama campaign’s message should unequivocally stand with the Church and Jesus Christ’s humble message of social justice, equality and inclusion.

Arkedis certainly does lack scientific evidence. And considering there is no shortage of polling data on the opinions of Catholic voters, it is mysterious that the Times would allow him to make such an unsubstantiated argument.

Catholics are actually no more socially conservative than the electorate as a whole. Gallup polling has found “almost no difference between rank-and-file American Catholics and American non-Catholics” on whether abortion and stem cell research are morally acceptable. That’s because Catholic voters do not take their marching orders from the church. A massive study by Georgetown University found Catholics growing more likely to make up their own minds about social issues. “American Catholics…increasingly tune out the hierarchy on issues of sexual morality,” reports the Religion News Service. “The sweeping [Georgetown] survey shows that over the last quarter-century, US Catholics have become increasingly likely to say that individuals, not church leaders, have the final say on abortion, homosexuality and divorce and remarriage.”

At the state level the Catholic electorate seems to actually be a force for social moderation. Take a look at the religious breakdown of states and you will find that predicting whether a state will lean Democratic or Republican is often as easy as simply asking whether it has more Catholics or white evangelicals. The ten states with the highest proportion of white evangelicals reads like a roll call of Red America: Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi, Kansas. The most Catholic states are concentrated in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, including such Democratic bastions as New York and Massachusetts. In the Republican primaries, Catholic voters consistently favored the mainstream Mormon Mitt Romney, while evangelicals voted for the staunchly socially conservative Catholics Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

Stricherz points to the existence of Catholic anti–abortion rights Democrats as proof that a distinctly economically populist, socially conservative Catholic vote exists. “Think of the late Bob Casey Sr., governor of Pennsylvania, as the beau ideal politician for the Catholic vote,” Stricherz writes. “If there was no Catholic vote, these pro-life Democrats would be Republicans.” But a few anecdotes is not evidence. One could easily counter with the example of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is Catholic, socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

The real cleavage among Catholics, as has been the case in recent elections, is how religious they are. Voters who go to church once or more per week, regardless of their denomination, tend to vote Republican, and those who go less often or not at all tend to vote Democratic. McCluskey points to this as evidence that their voter guide is in line with religious Catholics, if not Catholics more generally.

“One thing when talking about polling of Catholics is look at how frequently they go to church,” McCluskey said. “It’s basically an ethnic identity at this point. There are people in my own family who call themselves Catholic but don’t go to church on a weekly basis; that’s a sin. Most polls find those Catholics who go to church on weekly basis tend to run more conservative.”

That’s true, but it also suggests that there are not a large number of undecided voters out there who are socially conservative and fiscally liberal, who can be suckered into voting Republican by being told Catholic issues are limited to abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage and torture. But conservatives will give it a try.