Douglas Kmiec and the Lure of Obama

Deal W. Hudson
February 20, 2008

In a “Window” from last week, I addressed Catholic law professor Doug Kmiec, who had written an article in Slate titled “Reaganites for Obama?”

In that piece, Kmiec made an argument encapsulated in the following sentence:”Beyond life issues, an audaciously hope-filled Democrat like Obama is a Catholic natural.” I criticized him for exemplifying the kind of Catholic politician who divorces the life issues from political judgments.

Professor Kmiec has since responded in an article on Catholic Online. I predict we’ll hear a lot more of this kind of argument from Catholic supporters of Obama in the 2008 presidential election, though I sincerely hope Professor Kmiec will not be among them.

Responding to my own column, Kmiec wrote:

These are remarkably uncharitable and uninformed words. They are words of hate, designed not to advance the protection of human life so much as to thoughtlessly denigrate.

My words were not motivated by hate, but by anger. I’ve admired Doug Kmiec for a long time, and I was angry that he could argue something so mistaken. I could find no other explanation than that he was looking to ingratiate himself to Obama. Nevertheless, I should never have impugned ill motives to Kmiec. I am not a mind reader and should not have acted like one. I apologize for that.

Of course, the charge that I spoke “uninformed words of hate” requires a response. This is simple sophistry – how could it be that I “denigrate” unborn life by pointing out that Senator Obama is in favor of ending it, even after the baby has emerged from the womb? (Obama voted against a measure outlawing partial-birth abortion in his home state.) Barack Obama has a 100 percent pro-abortion rating from NARAL, but for pointing that out, I am the one denigrating unborn life?

Kmiec writes that I am guilty of “blind partisanship” and accuses me of using the pro-life issue as a political “wedge.” He’s right about that. That’s why I wrote a number of articles publicly opposing Rudy Giuliani’s candidacy when he was the presumptive GOP nominee. There is nothing wrong with criticizing a candidate who is entirely opposed to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a non-prudential matter such as abortion. I have been (and will continue to be) critical of John McCain on the matter of research on embryonic stem cells, just as I was of George W. Bush in 2001 when he allowed federal dollars to be spent on existing embryonic cell lines.

Kmiec further argues:

Mr. Hudson’s commentary suggests that it is impermissible for a Catholic to even inquire about Senator Obama’s suitability for the presidency, and he proposes to support this remarkable proposition by making reference to documents from the Catholic bishops and the Vatican.

It’s true that we have a “moral duty” to inquire about particular candidates’ suitability for the presidency, but I find it hard to accept that he was merely carrying out a “moral duty” in the Slate article. It is one thing to prognosticate that Catholics may find Obama preferable to McCain, but another thing to virtually bless that conclusion.

Kmiec admits that he “whimsically entitled” his essay “Reaganites for Obama?” Without being oversensitive, such whimsy is hardly appropriate to the serious business of explaining to Catholic voters how it is possible for them to see Obama’s candidacy in a positive light, in spite of his hideous voting record on abortion.

Ironically enough, Kmiec also calls my article “uninformed,” and yet he lists McCain’s position on immigration as another reason Catholics might prefer Obama. Among all the GOP candidates for president, no one is closer to the position of the U.S. Bishops on immigration than Senator McCain. His bi-partisan effort with Sen. Ted Kennedy to propose an immigration bill, the “Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act” (June 2005), is entirely consonant with the bishops’ “Justice for Immigrants” campaign launched just a month earlier.

Furthermore, Kmiec fails to mention that Obama and 26 other Democratic senators, including Hillary Clinton, voted for the border fence in November 2006. That McCain now supports the building of a security wall should not obscure the fact that he has suffered much criticism from grassroots Republicans for defending a bi-partisan position on immigration that was consistent with the position of the USCCB.

But of course, immigration policy is a prudential matter, as are the other issues listed by Kmiec – the Iraq War, a family wage, energy consumption, and the environment. There is no authoritative Catholic teaching on these issues that is obligatory – unlike that on abortion, euthanasia, and treatment of human embryos.

And that is Kmiec’s fundamental error: He compares McCain to Obama on prudential matters and finds Obama a “Catholic natural.” Prudential issues do matter and they must be included in the range of factors informing the choice of candidates. But they are not equal in importance to the life issues, as both the Holy Father and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly taught.

Come November, many Catholic voters may end up choosing Obama over McCain because of McCain’s prudential judgment about supporting the Iraq War. They may erroneously equate John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s expressions of concern over the Iraq War as equal in moral importance to the Church’s binding teaching on fundamental life issues. No one can stop them from doing that.

Unfortunately, Doug Kmiec has made it easier for them to make that mistake.

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