Obama's Christianity scares the Catholic vote

  • June 12, 2008

{mosimage}In his winning stride through the U.S. Democratic presidential primaries, Illinois Senator Barack Obama didn’t bring American Catholics along with him.

Some pundits believe that Obama cannot win the White House in November without this important group, which constitutes almost a quarter of the U.S. population. The primary results in the must-win states of Pennsylvania and Ohio certainly do not bode well for the Obama campaign. In Pennsylvania, 70 per cent of self-described Catholics went for Hillary Clinton, while in Ohio, she won 65 per cent of the vote in this category.

But has the so-called “Catholic vote” become less fact that fiction?

This question is raised by reporter Nancy Frazier O’Brien in an interesting recent article published by the Catholic News Service. (The full text can be read at the CNS web site, www.catholicnews.com.)

“With the two major parties’ nominees for president apparently decided. . . an old question inevitably arises in certain circles — how to corral the ‘Catholic vote’ in November,” O’Brien writes. “But the topic is being met with increasing skepticism by some who believe American Catholics base their votes on nearly as many factors as there are American Catholics.”

“Politicians and media people love to think there is a Catholic vote,” says John Farina, a Virginia professor of religious studies quoted by O’Brien. “And the political parties are always able to find people who will tell them there is a Catholic vote and this is how you get it.”

Whether one is working class or middle class, a staunchly conservative Catholic or mainstream liberal (roughly half of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal), on the political right or on the left, Latino or non-Latino, settled in the economically depressed industrial towns of Pennsylvania or in Los Angeles — all these variables play major roles in how a Catholic vote is cast.

This was not always the case. Up through the election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960, Catholics in America were mostly working class Democrats, non-Hispanic and tightly knit into ethnic communities of European origin — Irish, Italian, Polish and so on. Since then, many Catholics have become assimilated, middle-class urban professionals, and their traditional place low on the economic ladder has been taken by Latinos from Mexico, Puerto Rico and South America. American political leaders, however, have been slow to catch on this profound splintering of the once-solid Catholic electorate.

While the sociological and demographic analysis of O’Brien and Farina and others obviously teaches us many things about shifts of opinion among American Catholics, it does not take us to the heart of what I believe to be a principal reason why Catholic primary voters rejected Obama by large margins. It’s his Christianity.

I don’t mean his Protestantism. U.S. Catholics long ago became accustomed to living and working alongside white Protestants, of course, and even working with them on social and cultural fronts. And in recent years, white evangelical Protestants and theologically conservative Catholics have joined forces to oppose abortion on demand and other positions both sides (rightly) consider destructive.

But with the meteoric rise of Obama from senate rookie to presidential candidate, Catholics and millions of other white Christians have had to reckon with something most knew nothing about: the black church.

Obama’s roots in black American Christianity suddenly became an issue when a videotape of Jeremiah Wright, the candidate’s Chicago pastor, surfaced on the Internet and was played endlessly on network and cable news. Here was something most Americans had never seen: a black preacher, in the pulpit, flamboyantly calling down the wrath of God on the United States for its militarism and racism — the preacher who had led Obama to Christ and in whose church Obama had worshipped for more than 20 years.

Most white Americans were shocked. For the handful of white theologians and others familiar with the recent history of black Christianity in the United States, however, Wright’s performance was probably not so surprising. The black church, after all, is steeped in an old tradition of fiery, prophetic preaching, grounded in the Old Testament, against the powers that be. But especially since the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, liberation theology and Black Power and the continuing bitterness of racism have combined to define the peculiar culture of urban black Christianity.

Is it any wonder that Catholics, used to mild-mannered sermons, dignified ceremonial and patient moral teaching, voted against Obama in droves? We will have to wait to find out if the Wright affair has affected the outcome of the presidential race. Meanwhile, we can hope this episode opens the minds of at least a few white American Christians to the chasm that still separates blacks and whites in the United States.

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