Looking at these maps provided by the New York Times strongly reinforced something I knew before: Wisconsin is a really Catholic state. The culture of heavy drinking and the absence of the death penalty likely has as much to do with the large Catholic immigrant populations from southern Germany, Poland and Ireland as the Lutherans from Northern Europe.
In what other ways does Catholicism shape Wisconsin social policy? Abortion is not a huge issue but it sure has a constituency in the GOP, whose nominees are expected to be solidly pro-life. Conversely, Democrats are almost all pro-choice, which is not the case in more socially conservative states. Gay marriage is similar in that both parties comfortably take opposing positions, but different in that both sides are gradually adopting more liberal positions as the younger generation of voters voice a very different stance than older ones.
The issue of child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church exhibits a more traditional, constituency-based aspect of Catholic influence in the Badger State. For instance, Sen. Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwautosa) came under fire last month for an email he sent to a lobbyist that seemed to imply the senator did not want to harm his standing with the Church by supporting a law that would lift the statute of limitations on child abuse claims against priests. But that email didn't reveal the extent of Catholic influence as much as Sullivan's public statements, including his fear that the law would bankrupt the Church.
Sullivan said his main concern was the violation of due process that defendants would face with no statute of limitations on lawsuits. But he added, "Obviously, I don't want to have anything to do with bankrupting the church."
While I don't have specific data on Sullivan's district, I know that Milwaukee and Waukesha counties are 28 percent and 37 percent Catholic, respectively. The percentage of Catholics in his district is likely much larger, given that he represents the mainly white suburbs of Milwaukee in both counties.
But look at the Democratic leader who was responsible for killing the bill all-together, Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson. Nelson's district includes parts of Brown and Outagamie counties, which are both 52 percent Catholic!
So is it surprising that Ron Johnson, a Lutheran himself, testified against Child Victims Act before a Senate committee in January? According to Daniel Bice of the Journal Sentinel, Johnson is a big supporter of Catholic schools in the Oshkosh area, and sits on the financial board of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay. "What would Martin Luther say," quipped Peter Isley, an advocate for victims of priests.
But that's the key. An issue which threatens the Catholic Church financially does not only strike fear into the hearts of Catholics like Jim Sullivan it threatens social institutions such as religious schools, the latter of which is especially dear to Republicans who advocate for vouchers and alternative schooling. Hence, on the issue of lawsuits against priests, the Church not only has a strong base of Catholics, but it can draw upon the thousands of families who have a vested interest in the solvency of the Church and its schools.
Feingold's office criticized Johnson for not sticking up for children on the issue, which brings up another sinister opportunity for ethnic politics. Feingold is Jewish. Most Wisconsinites don't have a problem with that (so is Herb Kohl). But an appeal to Catholics who believe trial lawyers are threatening their church and schools may bring that aspect of Feingold's religious background more prominence and suspicion than it would usually receive.