Barack Obama’s Catholic Problem

Deal W. Hudson
February 27, 2008

In early January I wrote a column arguing that Barack Obama “will not win the Catholic vote.” Although Obama has won eleven primaries in a row, his “Catholic problem” is emerging in voting patterns and early media skirmishes.

Catholic-vote expert Steve Wagner predicted two months ago that Clinton would beat Obama among Catholics. Clinton’s advantage, Wagner explained, is her ability to put forth “persuasive arguments on key social issues.” Obama, according to Wagner, has yet to make these kinds of arguments – he attracts a “substantially frustrated constituency of people far to the left who don’t feel they have representation. Catholics aren’t feeling deprived.”

Wagner was right. Catholic voters in the primaries, thus far, have chosen Clinton over Obama by substantial margins. In Connecticut, Obama lost Catholics to Clinton 37 percent to 59 percent; Massachusetts, 35 percent to 62 percent; Illinois, his home state, 49 percent to 51 percent; California, 37 percent to 54 percent; New Jersey, 28 percent to 69 percent; Florida, 22 percent to 63 percent; Maryland, 45 percent to 48 percent.

Where Obama has broken the pattern, his Catholic problem shows up among weekly Mass attendees. He won in Missouri, 50 percent to 46 percent, but lost active Catholics, 46 percent to 53 percent. He tied in Wisconsin but lost among active Catholics, 46 percent to 53 percent.

And yet, on the heels of his relatively poor showing among Catholic voters, came the remark of well-known Catholic jurist Douglas Kmiec that Obama is a “Catholic natural.” Evidently, Catholic voters are slow to recognize him as such. It’s hard to blame them when Obama has voted against a law that would have protected a child once it was born and outside the womb – the Illinois Born Alive Infant Protection Act.

One Catholic blogger labeled Obama the most “Anti-Catholic Presidential Candidate.” It’s hard to disagree when Obama has a 100 percent pro-abortion rating from NARAL, supports partial-birth abortion, supports spending tax dollars for abortion, voted against notifying parents of minors seeking out-of-state abortions and supports homosexual marriage.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that Obama was endorsed by one of the nation’s leading abortion advocates, Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for a Free Choice. Calling Hillary Clinton “not radical enough on abortion,” Kissling praised Obama as the man who could complete “the social transformation that Roe began but did not solidify.”

Joe Feuerherd, who once wrote for the National Catholic Reporter (a newspaper that supported Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004), is also helping to define Barack Obama in the eyes of Catholic voters. This past Sunday, Feuerherd published an op-ed in the Washington Post in defense of his vote for Barack Obama in the Maryland primary.

Feuerherd said of his vote, “By doing so, according to the leaders of my Church, I put my soul at risk. That’s right, says the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – tap the touchscreen for a pro-abortion-rights candidate, and you’re probably punching your ticket to Hell.”

No doubt Feuerherd was employing deliberate overstatement, but whether hyperbolic or not, his column earned a sharp rebuke from Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the USCCB. Calling Feuerherd’s column a “screed,” she denies that the bishops have urged Catholics to become “one-issue voters.”

Sister Mary Ann writes:

Feuerherd suggests that holding the protection of human life as a primary concern means that the bishops have only one issue: abortion. But the bishops have spoken out about such matters as the war in Iraq, anti-immigrant sentiment, the death penalty, and lack of adequate health care for the poor.

If I were scripting the Obama candidacy for Catholic voters, I would much prefer Sister Mary Ann’s multi-issue approach to Feuerherd’s “the bishops be damned” attitude (a direct quote from his column).

Yet the exchange between Feuerherd and the USCCB brings to the surface the core of Obama’s Catholic problem, and why Catholic voters are already sensing a disconnect with the charismatic young senator from Illinois. Feuerherd is all too aware that Obama, as Catholic League president Bill Donohue puts it, promotes a “culture of death.”

Donohue issued this statement on the heels of Obama’s comment in the Cleveland primary debate Tuesday night that he regretted voting in favor of allowing Terry Schiavo’s parents to have recourse to a federal review of their daughter’s treatment. It’s almost as if Obama were looking to improve on his 100 percent rating from NARAL.

Feuerherd evidently does not want to go through the exercise of spinning the bishops’ and Vatican’s documents on the issue of voting for pro-abortion candidates and platforms. He saw that such efforts didn’t work in the past two elections, where George W. Bush did surprisingly well with Catholic voters. Feuerherd’s message seems to be: If the bishops are getting in the way of electing Obama, then “the bishops be damned.”

It’s doubtful that such a strategy to gain Catholic support would be successful. Catholics often disagree with their bishops, but they do not take kindly to expressions of outright disrespect.

Obama’s Catholic advisers should pay closer attention to Sister Mary Ann’s statement, which contains the seeds for a strategy Obama could use to solve his problem with Catholic voters. (I am in no way suggesting that this was Sister’s intention in writing the op-ed.)

Sister Mary Ann writes:

The current campaign shows that politics is too often a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites and media hype. In ‘Faithful Citizenship,’ the Church calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and vulnerable.

Obama has already shown that he’ll very likely avoid strident partisan attacks, and his message of “hope” is about a new type of politics, “a different kind of political engagement.” His Catholic strategy will be to paint a broad picture – “the pursuit of the common good” – of agreement with Catholic social teaching while trying to avoid the troubling specifics of his voting record on life issues.

Obama and his surrogates will argue that more lives will be spared from abortion by helping the “weak and the vulnerable,” rather than through legislation banning the practice. At the same time, they will describe John McCain as a man whose commitment to the pro-life cause is half-hearted and nominal. “Catholics for Obama” will further argue that if the pro-life issue is the primary reason for preferring McCain, think again: A McCain presidency will not, according to their claims, produce any significant progress in curbing abortion.

Finally, Catholics who support Obama will take McCain to task for his support for the war in Iraq. They will argue, wrongly, that the pope and the Vatican officially condemned the war (meaning that Bush, McCain, and the whole GOP “went against” the Church is going to war).

McCain is, in fact, vulnerable to Obama on both abortion and the war. If the Arizona senator wants to win in November, he must convince Catholic voters that he’s not a lukewarm pro-lifer. A good running mate could help him significantly on that score.

On the issue of the war in Iraq, McCain must become conversant, if he isn’t already, in Catholic Just War teaching so he can discuss the war and occupation in terms Catholics will understand.

Obama has a Catholic problem, no doubt. But if John McCain fails to communicate his enthusiasm for the pro-life cause and his “Just War” reasons for supporting the Iraq War, he may end up solving Obama’s problem himself.

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