Catholics & Politics Index
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics
Former Instructor St. John's University, New York City

Stalin, the Pope has No Divisions But Influences Many Votes

During World War 2, Churchill suggested to Stalin that he should consider the pope's opinions on an issue. Stalin famously replied, How many divisions does the pope have? The pope doesn't have any divisions, but as a democratically elected leader Churchill had reason to respect the pope's opinions.

As everyone knows in elections with many voters the probability of casting the deciding vote is negligible. So even if the outcome of the election is important to the voter's economic self-interest the voter knows that their own vote will have no effect on their economic self-interest. So voting your values as opposed to your economic self-interest is free. As the values of many voters are largely determined by their religion the pope is very important to a democratically elected leaders like Churchill.

The pope does not have any divisions but he influences many votes. Many academics reject religion so even if they accept this argument they might be inclined to look a secular source of ethics, perhaps John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. But most voters are not academics so we might paraphrase Stalin's famous response to Churchill, How many precincts can Rawls deliver.

This theory of voting was first published by the economist, Gordon Tullock in his 1971 article "The Charity of the Uncharitable" in the journal Economic Inquiry. But the theory is not just another economist's theoretical exercise in rational decision making. Numerous studies published by UCLA Psychology and Political Science professor David Sears and many collaborators showed that values usually economic self-interest in the decisions of voters.

Furthermore, many studies have shown that religion is one of the most powerful if not the most powerful influence on voting. Beyond that religious people are far more likely to vote. Among those without a college education the regular church attenders are twice as likely to vote.

So while a general might safely ignore the pope's Swiss guards the politician needs to carefully consider the pope, the Bible, and other sources of religious authority.


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Last updated April 10, 2020

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