Thursday, November 13, 2008
This one appears in the new issue (11/15/08) of The Tablet:
Why they didn’t listen
US election 2008
Michael Sean Winters
American bishops have been conducting a post-mortem on the presidential election after calls by some of them for Catholics not to support ‘pro-abortion' Barack Obama were roundly ignored. Were the bishops right and is their authority now diminished?
During the American presidential election, several United States bishops argued that abortion trumped all other issues and that no Catholic could, in good conscience, vote for Barack Obama.
On 20 October, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, called Obama "the most committed ‘pro-abortion' candidate" since the Supreme Court's 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade (which cleared the way for legalised abortion throughout the federal US), and said no Catholic could find reasonable grounds for supporting him. Chaput also questioned the motives of Catholics who seek abortion-reduction policies instead of seeking to overturn Roe: "I think it's an intelligent strategy. I also think it is wrong and often dishonest."
Meanwhile, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a local October forum on the election at St John's Catholic Church was discussing the pastoral letter, "Faithful Citizenship", which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) adopted at its 2007 meeting to guide Catholic voters in correctly forming their consciences on political matters. The forum was interrupted by Scranton's bishop, Joseph Martino, who thundered: "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn't speak for me." The bishop also took particular issue with the claim that voters could consider topics other than abortion.
That same week, retired Bishop Rene Gracida recorded a radio advertisement in which he said: "A Catholic cannot be said to have voted in this election with a good conscience if they have voted for a pro-abortion candidate. Barack Hussein Obama is a pro-abortion candidate."
Finally, the day before the election, Bishop Joseph Finn of Kansas City, Missouri, was asked in a radio interview: "There are Catholics listening right now who are thinking strongly or are convinced that they will vote for Barack Obama. What would you say to them?" The bishop replied: "I would say, give consideration to your eternal salvation." Bishop Finn, who is a member of Opus Dei, had earlier compared the 2008 election to the naval Battle of Lepanto, when a papal fleet turned back Muslim invaders in 1571.
There are many difficulties with these statements. The most obvious is that they did not persuade. Denver voted for Obama by the astounding margin of 75 per cent to 25 per cent and the state of Colorado went blue for the first time in 16 years. In Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, Obama beat John McCain 63 per cent to 37 per cent. And in Kansas City, Missouri, 78 per cent of the electorate considered their eternal salvation and voted for Barack Obama. Nationwide, Obama won 53 per cent of the Catholic vote, a swing of 13 percentage points over John Kerry's showing in 2004.
Latino Catholics represent the demographic future of both the Church and the country and they broke for Obama in even greater numbers. In Florida, Nevada and Colorado, Latino Catholics were crucial to Obama's turning those states from red to blue, so this demographic is the future not only of the Catholic Church but of Obama's governing coalition.
The second problem with the anti-Obama statements by the bishops is their specificity. "Faithful Citizenship" stated emphatically: "In fulfilling these responsibilities [to help Catholics form their conscience], the Church's leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in Deus Caritas Est, ‘The Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice ... The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible.'"
However, the greatest problem is that these "abortion-only" bishops are living in a parallel universe. In denigrating the Democratic Party and its nominee, the only conclusion is that the Republicans were the salvific choice. The pro-life movement has been carrying water for the Grand Old Party for 35 years and there has been no change in the law. Even if Roe were overturned tomorrow, abortion would not become illegal because the issue would be kicked back to the individual states. In a study made by Dr Joe Wright, an assistant professor of political science at Penn State University and a visiting fellow at the prestigious Catholic University of Notre Dame, the 16 states that might enact some restrictions on abortion are largely rural, conservative states that only account for 10 per cent of all abortions. Is that enough to make Republicans the "pro-life party"?
Moral theologians can debate whether abortion has the greatest claim on the conscience of a Catholic voter, but debating strategies about how to combat abortion is a political discussion. Barack Obama, at the urging of pro-life Catholics, changed the Democratic Party's platform to endorse reducing the abortion rate specifically through policies that help women facing crisis pregnancies, such as the adoption of universal health insurance and better pre-natal and post-natal care.
Obama made reducing the abortion rate a goal of his administration, mentioning it in both his convention acceptance speech in August and in his third debate with John McCain in October. His approach may or may not produce the desired result, but it is wrong to impugn his sincerity and that of his supporters who have come to believe that the Republicans only pay lip service to the pro-life cause at election time.
The "abortion-only" approach also disparages the moral seriousness of many Catholics. A woman married to an undocumented immigrant might view humane immigration reform as the most important issue. A family that can't afford health insurance for their children might be concerned about that issue as well as abortion.
The economic meltdown in mid-September is commonly seen as the reason for Obama's ascendancy. Pollsters concluded that the crisis pushed "moral issues" to the side, but that is not exactly right. The economy is a moral issue. For middle-class Americans, buying a house and making the mortgage payments are moral accomplishments, involving delayed gratification and self-discipline. Greed was seen as the principal culprit in the troubles on Wall Street. President-elect Obama grasped the moral dimensions of the economic anxieties felt by so many Americans. In a speech in St Louis a fortnight before the election, he asked: "It comes down to values - in America, do we simply value wealth, or do we value the work that creates it?" His ads spoke of "the dignity of work". He invoked the need for social solidarity as a counterweight to the vagaries of the market. Obama seemed to be channelling an admixture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Pope Leo XIII.
But Obama's ace in the hole, especially with young voters and independents, was his promise to end the slash-and-burn partisanship that had made Washington politics so bitter, not only in George W. Bush's term, but during the Clinton years as well. Young people whose principal concern was abortion nonetheless recognised that the 20-year shouting match had manifestly failed to achieve progress on that issue. Young voters concerned about the environment or health care saw their aspirations shipwrecked on the rocks of partisanship. Voters aged 18-29 supported Obama by a margin of more than two to one.
Independent voters, by definition, do not respond to partisan appeals, so Obama's promise of a post-partisan approach to politics resonated with them. For these voters, it was precisely his ability to voice liberal policies in moral terms that were persuasive. Obama's focus on values with both a Christian as well as a liberal pedigree, such as solidarity and the dignity of work, served him especially well with these centrist, non-partisan voters and points the way forward as he re-negotiates the social contract in the wake of the economic meltdown.
Ironically, the issue that gave Obama a leg-up at the start of the race - his early and consistent opposition to the Iraq War - barely figured in the general election. Only 10 per cent of the electorate cited the war in Iraq as the most important issue in the election, compared with 63 per cent who said the economy was the most key issue for their vote.
Voters disapproved of the Iraq War by a margin of 63 per cent to 36 per cent as well. But, even here, the issue overlapped with the economy as Obama questioned why the US Government continued to spend billions in Iraq where the Baghdad Government is running a surplus, while failing to invest in important infrastructure projects at home.
The day after the election, US forces were still at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The stock market was still in the tank. The federal budget deficit was still at record levels. One shudders to think of the pressures that are breaking upon this relatively young politician from Illinois. But, like the last president from that state, Abraham Lincoln, Obama seems undaunted by the charge he has been given. His own unlikely story is the best evidence yet that America can overcome her challenges. Catholics, at least most of them, wedded their hopes for America to his.