The Catholic Church's hierarchical structure provides another political benefit: making it clear that the bishops speak for the church. Though evangelicals have gained political power in recent decades, an ever changing cast of political leaders from dozens of different denominations makes it difficult for elected officials to tell who represents the movement. More liberal mainline churches, meanwhile, are split on issues like abortion and gay marriage, and their declining numbers have curbed their political clout. "Where are the mainline Protestant churches on questions of morality?" asks Schneck. "The prominent voices in the civil rights struggles have been silenced."
The Catholic bishops' more confrontational approach, meanwhile, has included increasing pressure on Catholic politicians, especially those who support abortion rights. Representative Kennedy's public battle with his bishop over Communion is the latest in the Eucharist wars that began in the 2004 election cycle, when pro-abortion rights Democrat John Kerry became the first Catholic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy. Kerry lost Catholic voters, a key swing constituency. (Last year, President Obama won them.) One more reason Democrats are taking the bishops' concerns so seriously.