Catholic Left Beats McCain with Hagee Stick

Deal W. Hudson
March 13, 2008

The moment Bill Donohue demanded that Senator John McCain repudiate the anti-Catholicism of Rev. John Hagee, the Democrats began rubbing their hands in anticipation. Between February 28 and March 10, Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, issued eleven press releases.

By the time Donohue announced “this case is closed” the McCain-Hagee story had been referenced every day on cable news and in the print media.

But what satisfied Bill Donohue was not enough for a group called “Catholics United,” a middle-to-left organization “dedicated to promoting the message of justice and the common good found at the heart of the Catholic Social Tradition.”

For the past year, Catholics United has pushed a number of issues it considers of importance to Catholics, most of them at the expense of Republicans: global warming, torture, children’s health care, ending the Iraq War, and now the endorsement of McCain by Texas pastor John Hagee.

A March 7 press release from Catholics United applauded McCain’s repudiation of Hagee’s anti-Catholicism but called upon him to “reject” Hagee’s endorsement outright.

Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, stated, “By publicly accepting and celebrating this endorsement, McCain is sending a signal that he tolerates these extremist positions. Hagee has offended many groups besides Catholics. The best way for him to move forward is by simply rejecting his endorsement.”

Here’s what McCain said:

I repudiate any comments that are made, including Pastor Hagee’s, if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics.

The “Hagee moment” in McCain’s campaign even gave pro-abortion Catholic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) the opportunity of criticizing the pro-life senator from Arizona. The fact that Pelosi’s statement failed to provoke widespread laughter demonstrates the power of the anti-Catholic label to turn off Catholics.

Here’s the new reality among American Catholics: There is nothing that will lose a candidate the Catholic vote more quickly than the taint of anti-Catholicism. Among laymen, Bill Donohue should be credited more than any other single figure for telling Catholics to demand respect for their faith. Donohue’s Catholic League makes media moguls think twice about bashing the Catholic Church – and he’s made the reality of anti-Catholicism a factor in presidential politics.

In the background of Donohue’s achievements are the myriad changes in the U.S. Catholic Church since the beginning (1978) of John Paul II’s papacy. These changes are part of the story I tell in my recently published book, Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon & Schuster).

John Paul II gave America’s Catholics pride in their Church, and a sense of empowerment they had not felt in many years. The changes stemming from the Second Vatican Council – some mandated by the Council, some not – had left Catholics unsure about their legacy and the traditions they, their parents, and grandparents had followed for many generations.

John Paul II helped to make sense out of those changes and reestablished spiritual and moral priorities that seemed in line with those previous generations thought left behind in the old “pre-Vatican II” world.

Among those priorities was the support he gave to the Catholic pro-life movement which had been started by the U.S. Catholic Conference in the early 70s but was superseded by the bishops’ embrace of the “seamless garment” approach to social teaching.

The life issues under the leadership of John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI, have become the focal political issues – the non-negotiables – by which Catholics can evaluate their political leaders and their platforms. The consequences of which were witnessed clearly in the controversies surrounding the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry.

If you look for a pro-life message on the website of Catholics United you will find it connected to support of children’s health care (S-CHIP) legislation. Whatever your position on that legislation, it is hardly the totality of the Church’s understanding of what it means to be pro-life.

Catholics United did not get much traction in making S-CHIP into a “pro-life” issue. But anti-Catholicism is an altogether more potent charge to make against the Republican candidate, and one that the GOP should take very seriously.

So should McCain be forced to completely reject Hagee’s endorsement? No, it is enough that he repudiated his anti-Catholic attitude and statements. If candidates could only accept endorsements from people they were 100% in agreement with no one would be able to accept anyone’s endorsement! McCain did the right thing, but it gave his opposition ten days of media time to send out negative buzz to Catholic voters.

The bottom line is this: Any politician who wants to win the Catholic vote will not only have to contend with Catholic concerns about life issues but also avoid any flirtation with anti-Catholicism.

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