Catholics could hold sway in U.S. election

  • April 3, 2008

{mosimage}Catholic voters may well decide who gets to be the next president of the United States. It’s a role that by now should be fairly familiar for American Catholics.

The Catholic vote has favoured the winner of the popular vote in the last nine presidential campaigns, including 2000 when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election. Since 1972 the Catholic vote has sided with the Republicans five times and the Democrats four.

Going into November’s contest, which will pit Republican presidential hopeful John McCain against the Democrats’ choice of either Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton, America’s Roman Catholics may be fated to point their fickle fingers at the Democrats. In 2006’s mid-term elections Catholics voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent for the Democratic Party — a slight shift from the 52 per cent to 47 per cent edge that George W. Bush polled over John Kerry in 2004 among Catholics.

“There are a lot of Catholics in the middle,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life senior fellow John Green told The Catholic Register. “If you were going to look for a group that was at the centre of the swing voters it would include an awful lot of Catholics. These tend to be Catholics who take their faith fairly seriously but tend to be fairly moderate on theological issues and the disputes within the Catholic Church.”

Fr. Richard Neuhaus, conservative confidant of Bush, doesn’t know how serious Catholics could cast a vote for Obama.

“If Senator Obama is the Democratic candidate it will become more and more evident to Catholics that he is on the very far left on the culture of life questions — I mean really the extreme left, even opposed to the Infant Born Alive Act, which aims to protect children who have survived the abortion procedure,” said the founder of First Things magazine.

For Rabbi Michael Lerner, architect of the “Spiritual Progressives” movement and editor of Tikkun magazine, Catholics are the great hope of the religious left in America.

“Luckily we have a Catholic left, and that’s been one of the best elements of our emerging left,” said Lerner.

Religion is always a factor in American politics, said Green.

“We do believe in separation of church and state, in fact we practise it,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean the separation of religion and politics.”

Nor should anyone find it unusual that religion is part of the mix in American political life, said Canadian-born Neuhaus.

“Politics is a moral enterprise,” he said. “That is to say that the great political questions — whether they be questions of war and peace, justice for the poor or the protection of innocent human life in the womb — all of these questions have a very powerful moral component.”

However, the natural affinity Americans see between spiritual questions and politics has been denied and even treated with contempt by liberal elites and the media, people Lerner calls “first amendment fundamentalists.”

“The role of religion was there already, but it wasn’t there in the consciousness of the media,” said Lerner. “Most other liberal politicians thought that the religious and spiritual stuff

was something that could be abhorred — could be abhorred without consequence.”

Since losing in 2004, there has been a shift on the Democratic side toward more openness, more acceptance of religious language and ideas, and “that openness made it possible for Obama’s campaign to emerge,” said Lerner.

Even Neuhaus has been struck by Obama’s speeches, which promise a politics of hope, solidarity and meaning.

“There’s an undeniable appeal in Senator Obama’s extraordinary ability to communicate a sense of hopefulness and common purpose,” said Neuhaus.

Obama’s genius has been his ability to employ language that many will find familiar — because they’ve heard it coming from pulpits, or sung it in Sunday morning hymns — without being so specific that his rhetoric becomes a wedge between blue and red states, said Green.

“His language evokes these religious values that are very common in the United States, without necessarily putting off people who don’t share them,” Green said. “There are lots of sources of hope. Religion is one of them.”

For Kelli Wight, a Texan living in Toronto and active in Republicans Abroad, this talk of religious values on the left doesn’t compute.

“I’m not sure what you mean by the religious left. Who would that be?” she asked.

Wight has no doubt that the religious right is still a critical component of the American vote, and she believes Obama’s religious associations will factor in against him — particularly his connection to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of his church. The pastor has alleged that the United States is fundamentally racist.

“It looks like Obama’s religious practices are hurting him right now because his religious practices are seen as anti-American,” Wight said.

Still, Wight concedes her candidate has a limited appeal to the religious right.

“John McCain is really more of a moderate, and some of the far right say he’s really more of a Democrat in many ways than a Republican,” Wight said.

McCain is going to have a tough time cosying up to the religious right, said Green.

“For the last eight years he has feuded with the religious right, and now he’s trying to make peace with them,” he said. “It’s unclear how well he’s done. There is a certain danger for McCain in making peace with them. A lot of people, Republicans and Democrats alike, admired McCain precisely because he feuded with the likes of Pat Robertson.”

On the other hand, McCain’s rhetorical bent has him urging self-sacrifice in aid of building a stronger and better America. He promotes a conservative ethic of community and solidarity which opposes rampant individualism — values aligned with Catholic social teaching.

It would be a stretch, however, to make McCain the flag bearer for Catholic values, said Neuhaus.

“I don’t expect to see McCain articulating these connections with Catholic social doctrine in a very explicit way, but I think some of the music — if not the lyrics — will communicate to strongly committed Catholics,” he said.

Back on the Democratic side, Clinton faces unusual challenges connected with religion, said Green. A member of the same branch of Methodism as Bush, Clinton attends church regularly, takes it seriously and appears to be devout, said Green. Throughout her political career she has spoken about a “politics of meaning” and invoked religious themes. But the voters don’t see it. No matter what she says or how hard she tries to match her church-going life with the religious life of average Americans, she is perceived as hostile to religion, Green said.

Green cautions that the big dance isn’t until November, and as autumn leaves turn American Catholics may be the bell of the ball.

“I will be shocked if both political parties don’t spend a lot of effort trying to get those Catholics on their side,” he said.

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