Catholic vote

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.

Dominant-Issue Voters

Deal W. Hudson

Several Catholic leaders have recently commented that Catholics should not be “single issue” voters, meaning that they shouldn’t vote exclusively on the abortion issue. I agree. But it’s not necessary to be a single-issue voter to give the life issues the priority they deserve. Catholics should be “dominant issue” voters.

The Catholic Church proposes a vertical—not horizontal—list of moral and social issues for political consideration. The life issues—including abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem-cell research, and cloning—are at the top of that hierarchy. These issues should be considered dominant in determining how to vote for two simple reasons: First, the protection of life—the right to life—is a moral principle that sits at the foundation of morality itself. And it’s one of the three foundational rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. There could be no right to liberty or happiness unless there was a living person in the first place.

Second, the Catholic injunction to oppose abortion is unqualified: Individuals are not required or allowed, to make prudential judgments of the principle to a specific case. Appeals to private “conscience” cannot override this infallible teaching. In the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes:

In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good.

Opposition to abortion, therefore, binds every Catholic on pain of mortal sin; it admits of no exceptions. There is no question, then, that as the dominant issue, a politician’s position on abortion qualifies him or her for the Catholic vote. From the perspective of the Church, not all the policy positions taken by candidates are of equal importance. Catholics, by understanding themselves as dominant-issue voters, can preserve the hierarchy of values at the core of Church teaching while not ignoring the legitimate spectrum of issues important to political consideration.

Furthermore, by understanding the dominance of life issues, Catholics will overcome their confusion about the difference between moral principle and prudential judgment. Unlike the admonition against abortion, most of the general principles proposed in Church teaching can be implemented in a variety of ways; it’s simply a mistake to assume—as the left often does—that one kind of implementation is more “Catholic” than another.

(The bishops’ conference issues dozens of policy recommendations every congressional session on issues ranging from broadband legislation to minimum wage and partial-birth abortion. Unfortunately, the average Catholic doesn’t discriminate between simple policy recommendations made by the conference and doctrinal statements and often wrongly assumes that they have equal authority.)

One final advantage to the dominant-issue approach is that it can help close the unnecessary divide between pro-life Catholics and “social justice” Catholics. There’s a clear continuity between providing someone with food and shelter and the willingness to defend his life when it’s threatened. The Church often employs the phrase “social justice” when addressing “the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1928).

The demands of social justice, then, begin with the right to life and end with the right to be protected from euthanasia or the temptation of assisted suicide. It’s a mistake to detach the idea of social justice from the protection of vulnerable life: The source of moral obligation to protect the unborn and to feed the hungry is one and the same—the inherent dignity of the human person.

An Evangelical Ponders the Presidency

Deal W. Hudson
September 25, 2006

If you know the name Huckabee it’s probably from the popular movie or the highly publicized weight-loss campaign of the Arkansas Governor. My wife is politically astute and very knowledgeable. When I told her I was meeting with Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, she quickly replied, “Oh, he’s the guy who lost all the weight.” The health programs Huckabee subsequently implemented also got national attention, most notably, the purging of junk food from public school cafeterias.

Gov. Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, was in Washington last Wednesday for a series of meetings testing the waters for a potential presidential bid in 2008. I had been asked by some Evangelical friends to host a D.C. meeting with Catholic leaders and was glad to do it, given Huckabee’s pro-life and pro-family record. As a former Baptist minister myself, I was curious to see how Huckabee would connect with this town’s Catholic crowd.

As the 2008 election draws near social conservatives are restless; they have no clear choice among the leading contenders. Some Catholic conservatives are already promoting the candidacy of the estimable Sen. Sam Brownback (KS), who has established credentials on issues such as life, marriage, and stem cell research. Evangelicals, who make up the majority of the Republican religious vote, may be somewhat hesitant to support Brownback, who is a recent convert to Catholicism.

Evangelical activists have been generating some buzz around Huckabee, who capped his years as a pastor by becoming president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention. He told our group that his decision to enter politics came after some public remarks by Dr. Jocelyn Elders when she was Gov. Bill Clinton’s Director of Health in Arkansas. During a legislative hearing, Elders said, “Preachers need to get over their love affair with the fetus,” and, “Preachers need to stop moralizing from the pulpit.” Clinton called Huckabee to ask whether her comments would cause problems among Arkansas Baptists. When Huckabee told him they certainly would, Clinton arranged for Huckabee to meet with Elders to work out their differences. After the two hour meeting, Huckabee went home telling his wife, “If people like this are setting the policies that affect the way our children are educated in school and shape the culture in which we live, it is time to get out of the stands and get on the field.”

Gov. Huckabee follows the pattern of other Evangelical pastors who felt compelled by hostility to religious values to run for office. Yet, Huckabee comes across very differently from Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. If you didn’t know his background as an Evangelical minister, you would assume he had been a successful Southern businessman before becoming Governor. The predictable pulpit mannerisms and rhetorical fervor are muted. His manner is straightforward and disarming; he commands attention with quiet authority. In fact, he reminds me very much of his counterpart, the Catholic Sen. Brownback.

Some of Huckabee’s remarks, I admit, were something of a surprise. After recounting his journey into politics, he concluded by making the point so often made by liberals that pro-lifers don’t care for children once they are born. “I’m not sure we have much credibility,” he said, ” if we don’t care about what happens to a child “in between” birth and death.” Most of his presentation recounted his work in Arkansas to relieve poverty and homelessness, promote health, and strengthen education. (His wife, he told us, serves on the board of Habitat for Humanity.)

The Catholics at the meeting were impressed with Gov. Huckabee. None of them were thrown by his emphasis on the kind of social issues so dear to the Political Left. This was a savvy group who did not need to be assured of Huckabee’s pro-life bona fides, and who know a single-issue approach does not get a social conservative elected president.

I told the Governor during the discussion that his remarks reminded me of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” and asked if he thinks the GOP needs to be rebranded for the 2008 election. His answer was emphatic, “We must get rid of “callous conservatism” or we are going to lose the people we need to win elections.”

In national elections, Evangelicals tend to like a little fire and brimstone, and Catholics are turned off by it. Gov. Huckabee, striking me as someone who never pounded his pulpit, may be the kind of Evangelical who can be successful in communicating with Catholics.

Huckabee won’t make any decision, he told us, until January 2007. Gov. Mitt Romney may have already surpassed him in connecting with the high-dollar socially conservative donors. But, if the Evangelical community puts all its support behind Huckabee, he will immediately become a contender. If so, the public will soon find out the Arkansas Governor is more than the “guy who lost all that weight.”

Why Barack Obama Will Not Win the Catholic Vote

Deal W. Hudson
January 7, 2008

To win the White House in 2008, the Democrats have to win back the Catholic voters they lost to the GOP in 2000 and 2004. A previous Window forecast that if the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, she would win the Catholic vote. However, with his commanding victory in the Iowa caucus, Barack Obama may be well on his way to upsetting the presumptive nominee.

But what will his prospects be for winning the necessary Catholic vote? Recent polling and expert analyses suggest that Obama will actually have a difficult time connecting with Catholic voters.

Pew Research Center poll released last November showed Obama trailing Clinton 17 percent to 45 percent among white Catholics. Among mainline Protestants, Obama was preferred by 25 percent; black Protestants, 36 percent; and religious but unaffiliated voters, 27 percent.

It must be troubling to the Obama campaign that his level of support among white Catholics is significantly lower than among other religious voters. In fact, this was the greatest drop for any presidential candidate between his or her overall percentage and the percentage among a specific group.

These numbers did not surprise Steve Wagner, president of QEV Analytics and an expert in political polling of Catholic voters. Wagner thinks Clinton is a bigger threat to take the Catholic vote back from the GOP.

According to Wagner, Clinton’s advantage is her ability to put forth “persuasive arguments on key social issues.” Obama has yet to make these kinds of arguments. Rather, 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’s description of Obama’s following sounds much like what I have heard from politically active Catholic liberals over the years. I asked Wagner if the Catholic left would be able to help Obama: “There just aren’t many people fitting that description. Liberal Catholics are trivial as a constituency because they are so small in number.”

Wagner predicts that the only religious voting group who will strongly support Obama is religiously active African-American voters. (There was concern recently that Obama was not connecting with African-American ministers, but he seems to have picked up some important support lately.)

The underlying danger of Obama for Democrats, according to Wagner, is that he is returning to the “interest-group politics” that started in the 1970s with the McGovern campaign.

A recent book by pro-life Democrat Mark StricherzWhy the Democrats Are Blue: How Secular Liberals Hijacked the People’s Party, describes the revolution in the Democratic Party brought about by the 1972 McGovern Commission, mandating that convention delegates be selected by a quota system of race and gender.

According to Stricherz, it was the white, largely ethnic Catholic who got pushed aside in the Democratic Party when the quota system was enforced. Most of these Democrats were Catholic and pro-life; they were replaced by pro-abortion feminists.

The Democratic Party, it is widely recognized, is still trying to recover from the McGovern revolution, which triggered the steady migration of Catholics into the GOP. If Wagner is right, Obama’s politics will remind Catholic voters why they left the Democratic Party in the first place.

Another big problem Obama will have with Catholics, Wagner says, will be his brand of patriotism. Last October, Obama suddenly removed the America flag pin he has been wearing since the start of the campaign. He said it has become a substitute for “true patriotism” since the attacks of 9/11.

Catholics will bristle at the reminder of that incident, which will inevitably come up in a presidential campaign. As Wagner put it, “Catholics are patriotic, and the Obama campaign will contain implicit criticism of America throughout its message.”

I asked Wagner whether Obama, if nominated, would be able to move toward the middle, like Senator Clinton and Governor Romney have tried to do.

“Romney had four years to remake himself, but Obama will have only four months to reinvent himself,” Wagner said. “His leftish populism is not going to play in a general election.”

Wagner’s view of Obama stands in stark contrast to the opinion of many Democrats. No less than Ted Sorensen, a former speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, has heralded the junior senator from Illinois as JFK’s heir.

Kennedy won 83% of the Catholic vote in 1960. In this respect, at least, Barack Obama will be no JFK.