During the second presidential debate on Oct. 16, Catholic students at the University of North Carolina Wilmington gathered around the TV at the Newman Student Center.
Some were disillusioned when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called illegal immigrants “illegals.”
Others weren’t so keen on President Barack Obama’s healthcare and contraception coverage mandate.
And still others like UNCW senior Zach Tomkoski, considered voting for a third party candidate to send a message of their dislike for the dominant two-party political system in America.
Junior education major Megan Wolff also planned to vote for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson because “I’m not sure I want Obama to have another four years, and I don’t think the country should be run like a business. We’re people; not a business.”
But with such a close race in North Carolina - Romney leading Obama by two points - the students know their votes matter. In fact, some political scientists argue the direction of the Catholic vote is a bellwether for the rest of the country.
A majority of Catholic voters supported the winning candidate in nine of the previous 10 presidential elections, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
A new poll on the Catholic swing vote by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life said the only subgroup of Catholics that has been divided in recent elections is white Catholics who identify as moderates.
The rest of Catholics divide evenly with conservatives usually voting Republican and liberals checking Democrat, the survey said.
In this contest, battles over fiscal and social responsibility as well as religious liberty and whether private companies owned by religious institutions should have to provide contraception coverage have consumed the voices of the American Catholic leadership in the last six months.
In the Wilmington area, Linda Chance, director of the Cape Fear regional office of Catholic Charities, said employees at her office weren’t allowed by policy to share their political beliefs. And other area Catholic-affiliated schools and churches have said they cannot speak publicly about their political views, fearing the revocation of their organization’s nonprofit status.
Recently, Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh released a letter to diocesan Catholics and four church bulletin inserts, one for each week leading up to the election. Burbidge wrote that the inserts are meant to help Catholics vote for candidates whose values are “in keeping with God's purposes.”
As a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Administrative Committee, Burbidge has said President Obama’s: “HHS mandate is a clear violation of our guaranteed Constitutional rights to freedom of religion.”
Marion Gittings, a Wilmington social worker, said the prominence of contraception debates during this election have overshadowed the rest of Catholic social teachings.
“Hearing from Obama that women’s voices do count, that has impressed me,” she said after the recent debates. “I believe strongly in the sanctity of life. But I don’t think that issue begins and ends with abortion. Being against unjust wars and poverty, all of that is in Catholic social teaching.”
When Newman Center students come to her with questions about how to reconcile their Catholic values with political talking points, Sister Rose McNamara sends them first to primary documents on church teachings and then to prayer.
“I tell them to take their big questions to prayer because as people of faith,” she said, “our decision has to be based in gospel values and is it the spirit and teachings of Jesus. Our students run the gamut of political views, but we exercise mutual respect.”