Yesterday’s front page story in the New York Times headlined the abortion issue and its decisive role for many Catholic voters. The pages of this blog, which is less than a fortnight old, have already shown the wide variety of opinions on that issue and I suspect there will be further debate about abortion policy and the politics of that policy as the campaign progresses.
But, what jumped off the page with the same stomach-turning surety you get when watching a slow-motion car crash at the movies was the racism of the comments made by the people at Scranton’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church. The one overt racist remark – asking if the name of the White House would be changed - caused the rest of the parishioners to "hush" him. At least everyone knew it was wrong to say that.
What has to worry the Obama campaign was the reaction of a different voter. The Times reports: "But more said they now leaned toward Mr. McCain, citing both his experience and his opposition to abortion. Paul MacDonald, a retired social worker mingling over coffee after Mass at Holy Rosary, said he had voted for Mr. Kerry four years ago and Mrs. Clinton in the primary but now planned to vote for Mr. McCain because of ‘the life issue.’" The difference between Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Barack Obama is not, alas, where they stand on "the life issue." All three are solidly in support of Roe v. Wade and of the three, only Obama mentioned reducing abortions in their six speeches at the last two conventions.
It is, of course, possible that this voter has changed his own views on abortion in the past four months since the Democratic primary when he voted for Clinton. But, is it not more likely that the life issue has become a mask, an acceptable reason not to vote for Obama that covers the real reason: he is black.
There were few Catholics in the South and those who were there were mostly in favor of the civil rights movement. Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington began the desegregation of the Catholic schools in Maryland before the Supreme Court ordered the public schools to do so in 1954. When some conservative lay people met with O’Boyle and suggested that it would take years, maybe even a decade, for the people to be ready for desegregation, O’Boyle said, "Thank you gentlemen, but we are going to do it tomorrow." O’Boyle gave the invocation at the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King shared his dream with America.
The tension between Catholics and blacks happened later and in the North. When Dr. King tried to end the de facto segregation of some neighborhoods in and around Chicago he met the same hatred and hostility he had met in Mississippi. Then came the "white flight" to the suburbs after the riots following Dr. King’s murder. The 1970s witnessed the conflicts over busing in many northern and Midwestern cities. At root, all of these conflicts involved the issue of tribalism or ethnic identity, an issue that goes back further than Bernstein’s "West Wide Story" and has a similarly unhappy ending.
Racism is a complicated phenomenon. I wrote about it on these pages here and Father Kavanaugh wrote about it for the magazine here. It has been mostly under the radar screen through most of the campaign. Pastors of souls should take to their pulpits in the next few weeks and discuss it openly: There are many reasons to vote for Barack Obama or to vote against him, but the color of his skin is not one of them. "Catholic" is a word with a meaning and it is the exact opposite of hateful tribalism.
Michael Sean Winters