The Catholic Difference

We have previously examined the critical role Catholics play in both parties’ primaries as well as in the general election. And, if you know nothing about Pennsylvania except the fact that it has a pro-life Democratic senator, Bob Casey Jr., you would know how important the Catholic vote is in the Keystone state. Yet most political commentators prefer to analyze the electorate in secular terms. How many articles have been written about Obama’s inability to attract voters who did not go to college, or those who make less than $50,000 per year? This morning’s Washington Post has a long article about the white, male vote and it does not mention the word religion. Many pollsters were not even asking about religious affiliation during the early Democratic primaries. I suspect that most reporters and campaign operatives do not really think that religion makes a difference in someone’s life. It is just something some people do on Sunday morning, a quaint ritual but not a coherent moral and intellectual worldview. They view the Catholic Church as the Easter Bunny with real estate. Politicians do not usually have the benefit of knowing what will be dominating the news cycle weeks in advance, but we know what, or better who, will be all over the airwaves the week before the Pennsylvania primary: Pope Benedict XVI will be making a five day visit to the United States. We also know that Catholics make up 30% of the population in Pennsylvania, compared to 18% in Ohio. The challenge of reaching out to Catholics is especially important for Obama. His speaking style has cadences similar to that of a preacher, but Catholics sadly are not accustomed to good preaching. Clinton’s mainstream Methodism is more familiar to us. She also carries the Clinton brand name and her husband brought Reagan Democrats, many of whom were white ethnic Catholics, back to the Democratic fold in the 1990s. The recent kerfuffle about Obama’s preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, hardly helped. When Obama says, as he did last week, "he’s like an uncle who talked to me, not about political things and social views, but faith and God and family," Obama is drawing a fairly arbitrary line between faith and his socio-political views. Surely, his commitment to helping the poor has something to do with Jesus’ claim that "whatever you do for these the least of my brothers, you do for me." Obama needs to come up with a better explanation of how his faith has shaped his views of the world, including the world of politics. Nor do you need a degree in biblical scholarship to find some of pastor Wright’s comments on faith outrageous. In a 2005 book, Wright wrote "The Bible we preach from came from a culture that was not English or European," he is more wrong than right. The English may have had nothing to do with the Bible, and Jesus was from Judea not Oxford. But the Gospel of John is certainly the work of a Greek thinker. "Logos" is not a Hebraic concept. More importantly, Obama needs to show how Dr. King’s prayer, echoing Isaiah, that all God’s children will see the glory of the Lord trumps the tribalism of Rev. Wright’s videotaped messages. Obama’s campaign has been about transcending race. It turns out that the frequently Greek-infused New Testament also involves transcending the tribalism of the first century synagogue to establish a universal church. There is a home run waiting to be hit, and only Obama can hit it. If he does, Catholic will respond. In the next two weeks, we will be discussing how the Obama and Clinton campaigns can reach out to Pennsylvania’s Catholics and, with a view to November, how McCain can begin laying the groundwork for winning the Catholic vote as George Bush did in 2004. The press may continue to focus on the socio-economic determinants of voting patterns, but the winning campaign may be the one that figures out how best to appeal to Catholics from Scranton to Pittsburgh. Michael Sean Winters
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11 years ago
Both Obama and Clinton could begin by sincerely expressing views that are consistent with Catholic beliefs- eg. pro-life. To think that rhetoric and flowery speeches would be enough to "convert" Catholic voters is insulting to Catholic voters.


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