2000 Election

Catholics and the GOP: an Uneasy Fit — my op-ed from the Los Angeles Times — January 23, 2000.

Catholics make up the largest single religious denomination–65 million–of any kind in this country. They also make up one-third of the electorate in a presidential election, approximately 30 million. Yet in more than 200 years, a Catholic priest has never served as chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In December, an 18-member bipartisan committee verbally expressed a preference for Father Timothy O’Brien, a political science professor at Marquette University, for the job of House chaplain. Yet when Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey, and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt met to decide who to nominate as chaplain, they chose a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Charles Wright, over O’Brien. There were charges of anti-Catholic bigotry, and when Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a highly respected Catholic, raised the same question, Catholics took notice.

This controversy comes at an awkward moment for the GOP. Leading presidential contender George W. Bush has demonstrated a strong pull on the decisive Catholic swing vote. Our Crisis magazine polling indicates that up to 40% of the Catholic vote–12 million–can shift parties in presidential elections. The Democrats would like nothing better than to undercut Bush’s appeal by adding anti-Catholic prejudice to the list of moral complaints they aim at Republican conservatives.

The full House will vote on Wright later this month, and the Democrats appear ready to contest it. If they raise the issue of anti-Catholicism on the House floor, they will be touching a deep nerve among this nation’s Catholics.

The Democratic Party was the traditional home for most Catholics until the late 1960s when a slow migration into the conservative movement and the Republican Party began. Today, Catholics make up the largest single Republican constituency, about 31% of the party. Yet the size of the remaining swing vote indicates hesitation and discomfort about the fit of Catholics into the GOP. Our research indicates that Catholics who are in basic agreement with the conservative social values of the GOP often are turned off by the harshness of Republican rhetoric, a preoccupation with economic matters and vituperative attacks on government programs aimed at the needy. In short, Catholics remain unconvinced of Republican compassion.

The selection of the House chaplain gave Republicans an opportunity to reach out to Catholics and to refashion the image of a party frequently portrayed as in the clutches of the religious right. Instead, the House leadership provided Democrats their opportunity to begin recapturing a generation of Catholics grown accustomed to voting for the Republican Party. Democrats can paint a picture of a WASPy party hopelessly out of touch with–even intolerant of–this nation’s religious diversity.

Democrats won’t find it hard to persuade such old Catholic left-wingers as Father Andrew Greeley, who recently opined on CBS’ “The Early Show,” that any Catholic who is a Republican is “probably” in a state of mortal sin. When host Bryant Gumbel expressed disbelief, Greeley explained: “Republicans tend to be the party of the affluent, the self-righteous, the haters and racists.” Extreme as it may be, this attitude pervades a significant minority of Catholic voters and tinges the fears of the Catholic swing vote.

In a January 3 letter to William A. Donohue, president of the 350,000-member Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Armey explained that his decision to vote for Wright over O’Brien was because of “Wright’s interpersonal skills and pastoral experiences” versus O’Brien’s 22 years as a professor of political science. As Armey told me, he never focused on the denominational ties of the three candidates but on their qualifications to be a pastor to House members.

The political turmoil and Catholic backlash following the selection of Wright came as a surprise to the House leadership. It shouldn’t have. The GOP has gradually become the home of more Catholic voters whose social conservatism is closely intertwined with their Catholic identity. The voter concerns that bring Catholics closer to the GOP are directly connected to issues informed by their Catholic faith. This includes not only the defense of life but also the general social decay caused by the decline in morality.

The blunder of the GOP leadership was not the result of anti-Catholic prejudice, but of lack of awareness of where Catholic voters are moving and why. Armey’s deliberate inattention to the religious affiliation of the three candidates tells the story. The GOP doesn’t need to examine its conscience, but rather to start doing its homework on Catholic America.

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.

The U.S. Catholic Conference Strikes Again

Published December 1, 2000
DEAL W. HUDSON

Catholics must wonder sometimes why the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC) exists. On October 16, Catholic News Service (CNS) of the USCC issued a story with the headline, “Gore sees hope for ‘common ground’ movement on abortion.” Written by Patricia Zapor, based on an interview with the vice president, the article serves to provide official Catholic cover for a pro-abortion presidential candidate whose most ardent supporters are the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and Planned Parenthood.

The phrase “common ground,” of course, was brought into Catholic parlance by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago, who wanted to provide a forum for Catholics to discuss their differences on issues like Church authority and the role of the priesthood. Abortion was never put on the common ground table: To seek common ground on abortion is to accept that some number of innocent lives can be taken. This is Gore’s position. Cardinal Bernadin would have never accepted such a compromise with the culture of death.

The fact that such a story would come out of CNS makes one wonder how much the culture of death has a grip on the USCC. That those who edit these stories and write their headlines would not immediately reject such a wording indicates a serious lack of Catholic judgment at CNS. It is not the case that Zapor was simply quoting Gore with comment; she uses his language without quotation in the middle of the article: “Gore said he sees a bourgeoning grassroots movement seeking common ground on abortion.”

Anyone who is in the business of Catholic journalism knows full well that to use the phrase “common ground” is to draw on the moral and spiritual capital of Cardinal Bernadin’s legacy. I suppose we can look forward to further CNS articles on the search for common ground on euthanasia and partial-birth abortion.

The USCC also raised numerous eyebrows with the release of its presidential candidate questionnaire on October 17. The first nine pages of the questionnaire were released that morning, with the remaining eleven pages inexplicably added the next afternoon. For legal reasons, the USCC explains, the questionnaire contains “verbatim responses and comments” of candidates to questions posed by the conference. Legal arguments aside, the result is unfortunate, because once again a pro-abortion candidate is provided an official Catholic forum to mislead the Catholic public.

On partial-birth abortion, Gore is quoted as saying, “Al Gore opposes late-term abortion and the procedure of partial-birth abortion…. Al Gore believes that any law prohibiting the partial-birth abortion procedure must be narrowly tailored, and should include protections for the life and health of the mother.” (Note that Gore sent his comments to the USCC in the third person, which makes them appear written by the bishops, while Bush’s comments were published in the first person.) The leadership at the

USCC knows that the health exception effectively negates the partial-birth abortion ban, but the format allows Gore to mislead Catholics who are not fully informed on this issue.

This is a repeat of the 1996 USCC candidate questionnaire that allowed Clinton to get away with the same misrepresentation of his position on abortion. Catholics helped to elect Clinton, and the unborn have been his victims. Protests were lodged then, so this time the conference action is surely intentional. If the USCC cannot present the candidates’ views in a way that truthfully informs the Catholic public, then the conference should stop issuing questionnaires altogether.

There is no doubt in my mind that the USCC legal department is overly cautious: I am sure that Catholic bishops have the constitutional right to inform Catholics how a candidate’s position stands in relation to a clearly defined moral teaching of the Church. Moral guidance is a bishop’s job, and as far as I know, the IRS cannot and will not object. Such judgments do not constitute partisan activity, although they may affect the voting behavior of Catholic voters.

There are many issues of public policy where common ground should be sought between Democrats and Republicans in relation to Catholic social teaching—abortion is not one of them. Catholics depend on the USCC for accuracy in promulgating the teachings of the Church and representing them to those in the media and to Congress. These events during the crucial final weeks before the election demand scrutiny of the CNS and a reassessment of future candidate questionnaires.