Sed Contra: Bush Courts the Catholics

Deal W. Hudson
May 1, 2001

Only a few days after his inauguration, President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush dined with the newly installed archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore (now Cardinal) McCarrick. In spite of concerns about security, the dinner took place in the archdiocese’s chancery, not the White House.

On January 31, Bush met in the White House with more than 40 Catholic leaders of social service providers. He took time on the road in February to meet with Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh and Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis and with Bernard Cardinal Law in the Oval Office. On March 16, the president celebrated St. Patrick’s Day a day early with Irish-American leaders and key players in the Northern Ireland peace process.

The first months of the new administration should send a clear message to this nation’s Catholics: Bush’s campaign strategy of reaching out to them isn’t going to end because he won the White House. If anything, these recent efforts to court Catholic leaders suggest that he is accelerating his Catholic strategy. His plan to involve Catholics in his administration seems to be going far beyond what even the most optimistic among us can reasonably expect.

For example, just before the St. Patrick’s Day party, Bush met with the seven U.S. cardinals, 25 bishops, and various others who were responsible for the creation of the new John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington. The next day, he traveled across the city to meet with more Catholics and help celebrate the opening of the center.

His speech there was a genuine tribute to the pope, not an excuse for a policy pitch. Former president Bill Clinton used his last official contact with Catholics before leaving office—a letter from him read at McCarrick’s installation—as an occasion to praise his own administration’s policy achievements.

The closest Bush came to arguing a point of policy in his speech at the center was his affirmation of respect for life: “In the culture of life we must make room for the stranger. We must comfort the sick. We must care for the aged. We must welcome the immigrant. We must teach our children to be gentle with one another. We must defend in love the innocent child waiting to be born.”

Two weeks after Bush spoke at the John Paul II Cultural Center, his historic speech had not been published by Catholic News Service.

These words of Bush were perceived as not only eloquent but sincere. By this time, his profile among Catholics was so high that a few of our evangelical Protestant brethren were getting concerned. A representative of the National Association of Evangelicals complained to the Los Angeles Times that Bush was spending too much time courting Catholics and that it would hurt his relationship with evangelicals.

The truth is that Bush and his advisers have been spending a great deal of time with Protestant leaders. But the nurturing of this part of the Republican Party base is not new; it has been a staple of Republican politics since the Reagan years. Rather than being miffed by the attention Bush now pays to Catholics, evangelicals should be pleased: Active Catholics and evangelical Christians together make up about 30 percent of the vote in presidential elections. Why not join forces?

This nation’s evangelical leaders have successfully shaped a bloc with real power to deliver votes and affect policy. Bush’s determination to connect with Catholics provides us with an opportunity to have similar clout. But I have my doubts as to whether Catholics, either religious or lay, can seize the moment.

I used to think that Catholic influence in politics was muted by the inability of most Catholics to overcome the alien bent of the culture of death. But during the past six years, watching from the editor’s seat at this magazine, I have witnessed several significant attempts by Catholics to enter the political process. Their efforts fell short, not because of the steep slope of the secularized culture, but as a result of squabbles within their own ranks.

For the Catholic voice to be heard in the new administration, we will have to avoid such in-fighting. This will require a new openness to agreement within the Catholic establishment, whose bickering members are not always thrilled by new opportunities for Catholic political influence, especially when it is not their own particular influence.

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