Can Obama do it for Catholics?
US Independence Day 2008 - special focus on AmericaMichael McGough
- 28 June 2008
In the last presidential election the Catholic vote was decisive in giving George W. Bush a second term in the White House. But there are signs that Catholics may be deserting the Republicans and the Democrat candidate is making great efforts to woo them
Last month a preacher at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, apparently intending to help Senator Barack Obama in his bid for the presidency, mocked Senator Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy already had been declared dead by political pundits. Recalling Clinton's tears before the New Hampshire primary, the clergyman told an appreciative congregation: "When Hillary was crying, and people said that was put on - I really don't believe it was put on. I really believe that she just always thought: ‘This is mine. I'm Bill's wife, I'm white and this is mine. I just got to get up and step into the plate.' And then, out of nowhere, came, ‘Hey, I'm Barack Obama.'"
The Revd Jeremiah Wright? No, it was Fr Michael Pfleger, a guest preacher at Trinity and a Roman Catholic priest. In an embarrassing encore of the furore over Wright's sermons, Obama condemned Fr Pfleger's sermon and Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago, rebuked the priest and secured a promise from him that he would refrain from presidential politics. The irony of the Pfleger gaffe is that a month later Obama might have welcomed the endorsement of a Catholic cleric - though obviously not Pfleger. In the Pennsylvania primary, Obama not only lost to Clinton but trailed badly among Catholic voters. Exit polls suggested that Clinton won 74 per cent of the votes of Catholics who attended Mass weekly and by 65 per cent among less frequent churchgoers.
Even after he secured the nomination and Clinton's endorsement, there has been talk - gleeful talk among Republicans - that Obama has a "Catholic problem". To some extent it is a Democratic problem; George W. Bush out-polled John Kerry (a Catholic) among Catholic voters in 2004. Defenders of this view cite Obama's poor performance among Catholic voters in the primaries, his pro-choice views on abortion (a contrast to John McCain's long-time opposition) and matters of style, such as his refusal, for a while, to wear an American flag lapel pin and his notorious suggestion that small-town Americans "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations".
But reports of Obama's unacceptability to Catholics may be exaggerated and rely too much on the results of his contest with Clinton. John Green, a senior fellow in Religion and American Politics at the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, has pointed out that Catholics might have supported Clinton for other reasons. Referring specifically to the Pennsylvania primary results, Green noted that "it is hard to separate the effect of religion from the effects of age, income and gender. As in past contests, Clinton did well with older, working-class women, a demographic that overlaps significantly with Pennsylvania's Catholics."
Green adds that "many of the Democratic Catholics who did not vote for Obama in the primaries might well support him in the fall against John McCain. But, on the other hand, not all white Catholics are Democrats - many are independents or Republicans. If nothing else, this means that white Catholics are a key group to watch."
Other factors could improve Obama's performance among Catholic voters. Young Catholics, along with other members of their generation, have been energised by Obama's campaign. Obama's opposition to the war in Iraq and support for economic justice appeal to Catholics who believe in a "consistent ethic of life" that begins but doesn't end with opposition to abortion.
Finally, Fr Pfleger isn't the only Catholic to praise Obama. He was endorsed in Pennsylvania by that state's pro-life Democratic senator, Bob Casey (though to seemingly little effect), and eyebrows were raised within Washington DC when Douglas W. Kmiec, a prominent conservative legal theorist and a professor of law at California's Pepperdine University who served in Republican administrations, wrote that "an audaciously hope-filled Democrat like Obama is a Catholic natural".
Obama's share of the Catholic vote in November may be shaped as much by intra-Church politics as by the secular kind. In 2004, after some bishops suggested that John Kerry should be denied the Eucharist, the Democratic nominee was bedevilled by a "wafer watch" in which journalists followed him to church to see if he would be turned away at the Communion rail. Obama is not a Catholic, so that particular dilemma will not arise. However, he might face criticism from conservative Catholics if he chose a pro-choice Catholic, such as Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, as his running mate.
Even without a Communion controversy, Obama could be damaged by a continuing rift in the hierarchy over how much prominence Catholic voters should give to a candidate's views on abortion. In a document entitled "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship", the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops produced a sort of "pushmi-pullyu" prescription.
The document pleased conservative Catholics by insisting that "abortion and euthanasia have become pre-eminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others". But the statement also acknowledged that "Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support. Yet a candidate's position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support."
A measure of the bishops' success may be that the statement was welcomed both by the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, and by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a liberal group that in praising the statement said it "clearly articulates the broad range of fundamental human issues found at the heart of Catholic teaching. Abortion, human cloning, racism, torture, genocide and the targeting of non-combatants in acts of terror or war can never be justified, according to the bishops' document."
The outcome of the quest for the Catholic vote could depend on which view of the bishops' statement - and of Catholic thought generally - will dominate pronouncements by notable Catholics about the election. In his new book, Souled Out: reclaiming faith and politics after the religious Right, the Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes that in the 2004 Bush-Kerry campaign "conservative voices in the hierarchy were dominant, fearless, relentless - in brief, overwhelming. Progressive voices in the Church were, to be charitable, conflicted. It might be said that progressive church leaders had qualms because of the abortion and stem-cell issues. But the issues of poverty, social justice and war did not seem to deter the conservative leaders in the Catholic Church from speaking out strongly in a way that left little doubt that they supported the re-election of George W. Bush." Obama's "Catholic problem" may also be the Church's problem.