Allies and adversaries
The US President and CatholicismMichael Sean Winters
- 10 November 2012
Tactics and strategy may be key to political triumph but Barack Obama’s return to the White House for a second term as President is also down to demographics, particularly the growth of the Latino Catholic population. His victory leaves rifts to be repaired with the Church
Next week, when the American Bishops’ Conference meets in Baltimore for its annual plenary meeting, it will be, as usual, a time for reflection. But this autumn there will be a topic for particular consideration: how, despite the words of warning from certain of their number, did Catholics help to return Barack Obama to the White House for a second presidential term, and what lasting impact will those bishops’ intemperate words have on ordinary Catholics in the pew and on the Church’s relationship with the President?
Early analysis of polling shows that Obama’s victory was handed to him by the votes of Catholics, especially Latino Catholics who held the balance of electoral power in Nevada, Colorado, Florida and Virginia. The fact that Catholics helped to put Obama across the crucial winning line of 270 electoral college votes raises profound questions about the efficacy of the letters and sermons from conservative prelates. They had warned the Catholic faithful, with varying degrees of explicitness, against voting for Obama. For example, during the “Fortnight for Freedom” last summer – held to alert Catholics to threats to religious liberty – Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria compared Obama to Hitler and Stalin. Two weeks before the election, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, warned Catholics that voting for Obama and the Democrats “could put your own soul in jeopardy”. Most bishops in the US did not engage in this kind of politicking, but those who did attracted plenty of media attention, drowning out the more measured sermons and statements on voting from the majority.
Despite predictions that the race would be exceedingly close, Obama took every state he won in 2008 except North Carolina and Indiana. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 has a president been re-elected in the face of high unemployment and an anaemic economy.
The key to the election was demographics. Almost four million more Latinos were eligible to vote in 2012 than four years ago, and they backed Obama. In 2008, Obama took 67 per cent of the Latino vote, but he increased it to 70 per cent this year. And in addition to increasing the margin, Latino turnout exceeded expectations. In Florida, Latinos comprised 14 per cent of the electorate in 2008, but they constituted 16 per cent this year. By comparison, white voters made up 71 per cent of the voters four years ago, but their share dropped to 67 per cent this November. Early indications are that between 48 and 50 per cent of Catholics overall voted for Obama, a slight fall on the number who turned out for him in 2008. That could mean that some of the bishops’ comments did have an effect on some voters, but the majority ignored them.
“The bishops have suffered a severe loss and need to regroup and come up with a better political strategy – Catholics are not listening to them,” says Fr Thomas Reese SJ of the Woodstock Theological Center. Indeed, the bishops have to ask if their forceful political statements risk bringing partisan divisions into the Church. They clearly did not alienate Catholics from Obama. It remains to be seen if these extreme statements alienated Catholics from the Church.
President Obama, two weeks before the election, acknowledged in an interview that if he won, it would be on the strength of Latino votes. This gives the bishops and the White House an opportunity to work towards a common goal: passing immigration reform. Obama needs to achieve this to make good on his promise to the Latinos who elected him, but because the Democrats did not reclaim the lower house of Congress, he will need the vote of at least some Republicans. If the bishops bless an immigration reform measure, those votes are possible. If the bishops don’t, immigration reform does not stand a prayer. And if the bishops refuse to sign up to an immigration deal out of hostility to the administration over unrelated issues, Latinos may begin to question their loyalty to the Church.
Arguably, the most immediate result of the election is that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will be implemented. Exit polls indicated that voters remain divided on it. “My hope for an Obama presidency is first that the ACA gets rolled out well and that 30-32 million people get health insurance and access,” says Sr Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association. The ACA will undoubtedly be Obama’s signature achievement and, had he lost, the law would have been repealed before it is fully implemented in 2014. Democrats since Harry S. Truman have been trying to pass universal health care. Obama did it. The Supreme Court upheld it. The voters confirmed it on Tuesday.
The controversial contraception mandate is part of the ACA’s implementation. The administration and the Church have until next August, when the mandate comes into effect, to achieve a negotiated settlement. Already, several courts are considering the mandate. “The last year has seen tensions build between the administration and the Church in the United States,” says Professor Stephen Schneck of the Catholic University of America, who was national co-chairman of “Catholics for Obama”.
“Blame can be spread pretty widely,” Schneck adds. “The administration’s [lack of provision of] a broad enough religious exemption in the original issuance of the contraception mandate last January was a major misstep. Good faith efforts to fix those exemptions with additional accommodations have not yet gone far enough. But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ [USCCB] staff can also be faulted for trying to mobilise a mass movement against the administration over this in an election year. There remains a chance to hammer out the needed exemption for all religious institutions and I’m hopeful that both the administration and the USCCB see the wisdom of working towards that resolution. President Obama could do much good for himself and for the future of his party’s relations with the Catholic voters by attending to this.”
The former US Ambassador to the Holy See, Thomas Melady, a leading Mitt Romney supporter, also hopes the administration will work out an accommodation with the bishops over the contraception mandate. “I don’t believe the President is anti-Catholic,” Melady says. “But I don’t see him as someone who has a historical understanding of the role of the Church in our society.” Melady notes that exemptions for religious conscience date back to the founding of the American republic, when Quakers, forbidden to swear an oath, were permitted to “affirm” an oath of office upon election.
Other prominent Catholics fear the contraception mandate was just a foretaste of more actions hostile to the Church. “In a second term, President Obama could dramatically reshape the Supreme Court, in a way that would put religious freedom and school choice at increased risk, could set back for decades the pro-life cause, and that could result in Roe-type overreach on various ‘social issues’,” says Professor Richard Garnett of the Law School at the University of Notre Dame. “In addition, the President’s frustration, and that of his fervent supporters, at congressional gridlock and non-cooperation – after all, he will face a divided Congress, and a Republican-controlled House – could tempt him to aggressively employ executive orders and administrative regulation in order to achieve his policy goals. This would please many in his camp, but would be inconsistent with the constitutional structure and the rule of law.”
Garnett says he hopes President Obama’s strong concern for education reform will lead him to embrace programmes that make it possible for children in poor neighbourhoods to attend Catholic schools, but he is not hopeful that a President who is no longer worried about facing the electorate will confront the entrenched power of teachers’ unions.
Some on the Catholic Left remain concerned about President Obama’s foreign policy. “I fear that Obama is too enamoured with using drones to take out terrorists,” says Fr Reese. “This weapon has dangerous ramifications, especially when it causes civilian casualties.” But Schneck thinks Obama’s victory bodes well for US foreign relations. “The re-election of President Obama holds real promise not only for America, but for the world,” he says. “For the world, what’s reassuring about Obama is his commitment to America’s responsibilities in regard to international law and international organisations – whether it’s about trade, environmental issues, religious liberty or in the pursuit of peace.”
It remains to be seen if President Obama can heal the partisan divisiveness that has hampered his legislative efforts over the past two years. The closeness and the ugliness of the campaigns did little to unite the country. But Melady, despite his support for Governor Romney, believes the country must unite if it is to face the enormous challenges ahead. “This is a great country. We have elections every four years and the American people have spoken,” he says. “Let’s all pitch in. The election is over. Let’s get on with the business of our country.”
* Michael Sean Winters writes for The Tablet from America.