Monday, September 1, 2008

John McCain and the Religious Vote in 2008

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The New Yorker magazine has an excellent 6,900 word article on the 2008 Presidential election with respect to the religious vote written by Peter J. Boyer. It deals with a lot of contemporary political history, going back to 1994 and before. This extract deals with the "Catholic vote", and John McCain's and Barack Obama's Democratic religious positions only. I will indicate where I have deleted substantial amounts of interesting information in case you want to read the entire article, which is indeed worth reading.

Party Faithful

Can the Democrats get a foothold on the religious vote?

by Peter J. Boyer September 8, 2008

In the autumn of 1998, when Karl Rove was contriving to make Governor George W. Bush President and to build a lasting Republican majority, he came upon “The Catholic Voter Project,” a study of voting behavior in national elections since the Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960. Catholics make up more than a fourth of the electorate, but they had long defied political targeting. This was because, since 1972, Catholic voters had essentially mirrored the rest of the electorate, making it impossible for political professionals to shape a distinctive Catholic message—or even to know for certain whether there was such a thing. The study, commissioned by the magazine Crisis, concluded that the issues that moved Catholic voters could, in fact, be discerned; it was simply a matter of redefining the Catholic vote.

The term “Catholic voter,” the study argued, was meaningless, reflecting an answer given to exit pollsters, and not much more. The only relevant Catholic voter was one whose vote was influenced by the fact of being a Catholic. The Crisis project compared the voting behaviors of active Catholics—those who regularly attended Mass—and inactive Catholics, and found a clear distinction. Active Catholics characterized themselves as being more conservative than Catholics as a whole, and, although they did not necessarily identify with Republicans, they were in the vanguard of the thirty-year Catholic march out of the Democratic Party. They were patriotic, anti-abortion, and pro-family (believing, for example, that divorce laws should be tightened).

For Rove, the Crisis report posed a thrilling prospect, akin to the framing of a new constituency, to be courted and drawn into the Republican base, as Protestant evangelicals had been, two decades earlier. “What I saw,” Rove says, “was a group that was searching.” After reading the report, Rove telephoned the publisher of Crisis, Deal Hudson, who had instigated the study, and invited him to Texas to meet Governor Bush. Hudson liked what Bush had to say, and shortly thereafter he agreed to become an outside adviser on Catholic outreach for the 2000 Presidential campaign. As it turned out, Rove was tapping into something far more profound than voting differences between active and inactive Catholics; he had struck upon a deep current of discontent within the Church, which had been building for nearly forty years, rooted in contending interpretations of the faith.

Rove had chosen the ideal instrument for his Catholic strategy. Hudson was a convert to Catholicism, and, with a convert’s zeal, he embraced an undiluted brand of the faith. As a philosophy student in college, in the late nineteen-sixties, and, later, as a professor of philosophy at Mercer University, in Atlanta, Hudson had shunned academic fads—“The Tao of Physics” and the like—and was drawn, instead, to the classics, where he believed the enduring truths resided. He admired Mortimer Adler, who became a friend, and he started his own Great Books courses. Hudson’s spiritual migration—he’d been a Southern Baptist minister before his conversion, in 1984—was animated by his wish, as he put it, “to wed the truth of philosophy with revealed truth.”

But Hudson’s firm doctrinal orthodoxy placed him in the minority within his new faith, as he discovered, to his surprise, soon after taking a teaching job in the philosophy department at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, in 1989. One day, he was chatting with a sociology professor, a former Jesuit, who asked him why he’d converted. Hudson shared his conversion story, and talked about the perfect accord he’d found in the Catholic faith between mind and soul. His colleague smiled and said, “I used to feel that way, but I don’t need it anymore.”

“I realized that the Church I had learned to love, and had converted to, was very deep within the detritus of the post-Vatican II confusion,” Hudson recalls. He was referring to the contention that followed the Second Vatican Council, which was convened in Rome in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, in the hope of renewing the Church in its mission to present Christ to the world. By the time the Council concluded, four years later, the Church had a new Pope, and a radically transformed understanding of itself. The faithful began to experience changes ranging from a new Mass (said in the vernacular) to the end of meatless Fridays. The progressive wing of the Church felt that Vatican II was a liberation, and invoked its spirit in challenging the faith’s core doctrines and theology, often to the point of open dissent. This contingent eventually came to dominate much of the institutional Church, holding sway particularly within the Catholic academy. Catholics who hewed to orthodoxy argued their case on the pages of obscure conservative journals, or from outmanned positions on college faculties, and bided their time. “I realized very quickly that I was going to be a culture warrior within the Church,” Hudson says of his arrival at Fordham.

Hudson thrived at Fordham, where, despite his minority view, he got on well with his colleagues and was popular with his students. He took up writing for Catholic journals, in addition to his scholarly work, and ventured onto the lecture circuit, proving himself to be a natural polemicist. But Hudson became a full-time culture warrior sooner than he may have wished, when his academic career suddenly ended, in 1994. After an evening of partying with a group of students on Shrove Tuesday, the eve of Lent, Hudson had a sexual encounter in his Fordham office with an undergraduate. She later informed her dean, and Hudson was strongly urged by Father Joseph O’Hare, the president of the university, to seek employment elsewhere. A lawsuit filed by the young woman was quietly settled, and nondisclosure agreements were signed by all parties.

Hudson moved his family to Washington, D.C., and began a new life. His ideological kinsman, the writer Michael Novak, needed help at Crisis, the Catholic journal he’d co-founded thirteen years earlier, and asked Hudson to become its editor. Hudson agreed, and quickly revitalized the magazine, expanding its subscription base and calling on a network of wealthy, like-minded Catholics for financial support. From his perch at Crisis, Hudson became a prominent figure in Catholic Washington, joining an influential circle of opinion-makers as they cheered the efforts of their champion, Pope John Paul II, to reinterpret Vatican II along orthodox lines. They associated themselves with a group of Catholic bishops, fiercely orthodox and devoted to the Pope (“JPII bishops,” they were called), who meant to steer the American Church more toward orthodoxy. Hudson was avowedly Republican, but he fretted that the Party was blind to its Catholic opportunity, mistaking Catholics for an ethnic constituency satisfied by Columbus Day speeches and St. Patrick’s Day parades. It was this frustration that prompted Hudson to commission the Catholic-vote study, which concluded, somewhat wishfully, that Bob Dole might actually have won the 1996 Presidential election if he had attracted more Catholics in just a handful of states.

Karl Rove wasn’t blind to the Catholic opportunity. When Bush assumed the Presidency, in 2001, Hudson became the volunteer chair of the new Catholic-outreach program of the Republican National Committee. In his book “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” Hudson describes himself as “the Catholic gatekeeper” for the White House. The Administration’s policies clearly reflected a Catholic influence. On Bush’s first workday, he acted to limit federal funding of non-governmental organizations that performed or actively supported abortion as a method of family planning overseas. By the end of his first term, Bush had delivered on every item on a wish list that Hudson says he presented to him at the time of their first formal meeting, in Austin, including its centerpiece, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which Bush signed in 2003. That year, Michael Novak explained Bush to an Italian readership in the journal Studi Cattolici. “Never have Catholics had so solicitous a friend in the White House,” Novak wrote. “So pro-Catholic are the president’s ideas and sentiments that there are persistent rumors that, like his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, G.W. might also become a Catholic.”

Hudson’s circle of conservative Catholics diminished the authority of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as the conduit between the Church and the government. “If you wanted to get something to the top inner circles of the White House from a Catholic perspective, you could contact Deal Hudson and it was delivered,” William Donohue, the president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has said. Diminished, too, was the bishops’ more liberal instruction to the faithful regarding their votes, a construct called “a consistent ethic of life.” In choosing a political candidate, the bishops advised their parishioners, they should consider hot-button issues like abortion as being just part of the spectrum of issues that are central to Catholic social teaching, alongside opposition to the death penalty, warfare, and poverty. By 2004, some JPII bishops were positing that John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, should be denied Communion, and had even suggested that casting a vote for him might be a sin.

All this helped energize that Catholic cohort which the Crisis study had identified as a ready constituency. In 2004, Hudson’s outreach team, by blanketing parishes in battleground states with voter guides, working with an e-mail list of a hundred thousand addresses, and sending thousands of volunteers into the field, delivered the Catholic vote to Bush. Hudson’s outreach efforts were harmonized with those directed by the evangelical political operative Ralph Reed, a consultant on general voter outreach. Reed, as the head of the Christian Coalition, had largely shaped the religious right and shepherded it into the Republican Party. Rove had engineered a religious political machine that many believed would give Republicans a lasting advantage. . . .

[Fourteen paragraphs deleted on John McCain's religious education, and his relationship with Baptist pastor John Hagee and the protestant theories of dispensationalism, often offensive to Catholic

In retrospect, the most important speech at the Democrats’ 2004 Convention wasn’t the nominee’s (“I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty”) but the keynote, delivered by a little-known state senator from Illinois. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states!” Barack Obama intoned. The line, even to the unchurched, sounded like something from a hymn (as was the case). It was a rare thing for a national Democrat to pull a verse from a gospel tune up from his internal playlist, but Obama spoke the phrase credibly, with an easy conviction.

In the sorting out that always follows an election defeat, Democrats decided that Kerry had lost because many voters believed that neither he nor the Democratic Party shared their values. Howard Dean had sensed this as a candidate, but he seemed clueless about how to proceed (citing Job as his favorite book in the New Testament, among many other gaffes). After Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House, she commissioned a Democrats’ Faith Working Group, a reflexively administrative response to a metaphysical problem.

The most effective Democratic religious outreach has been performed by the Democrat to whom it comes most naturally, Obama. Almost as soon as he joined the Senate, Obama became a prized booking on the speech circuit, where he proved to be fluent in what Jesse Jackson once called “faith talk.” Obama spoke forthrightly about his Christian beliefs and about his conversion experience (“Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side in Chicago, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me”), in a way that was hardly customary for Democratic politicians. In casting Republicans as the dangerous God Party, Democrats had turned themselves into the Secular Party so resolutely as to seem almost hostile to religious faith—a perilous position in a country where ninety-two per cent of the population believe in God, more than two-thirds believe in the presence of angels and demons, and nearly a quarter have said that the attacks of September 11, 2001, are prophesied in the Bible.

Obama addressed this problem in a remarkable speech on June 28, 2006, at a gathering of the Christian-left group Call to Renewal, in Washington, in which he offered a frank critique of liberal queasiness regarding faith. “There are some liberals,” Obama said, “who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word ‘Christian’ describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.”

Echoing the themes of Deal Hudson’s 1998 Catholic-voter report, Obama said, “The single biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called red states and those who reside in blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don’t.” He told secularists that they “are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square,” and suggested that “a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state.”

He went on, “Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation—context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase ‘under God.’ I didn’t. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats.”

[Ten paragraphs on Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University in California who agrees that abortion is an intrinsic evil yet has endorsed Obama because of his social justice positions.]

It remains to be seen whether Kmiec is an anomaly or if he represents a broader willingness by Christian conservatives to reconsider their Republican fealty. Democratic Catholic outreach since 2004 has been earnest, perhaps most usefully in the recruitment of candidates who adhere to the Church’s orthodoxy, rather than the Party’s, on such matters as abortion. The Party hurt itself badly with Catholics at the 1992 Convention, in New York, when the governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, was denied a speaking role because of his outspoken pro-life views. After the Party’s 2004 losses, Casey’s son, Bob Casey, Jr., was recruited for a Senate run, despite the objections voiced by pro-choice activists. Casey defeated the religious-right stalwart Rick Santorum, and was among the speakers at the Democratic Convention last week. Doug Kmiec participated in a panel on Thursday, as part of a series of Faith Caucus meetings, a first for Democrats. The Convention had opened with an interfaith gathering on Sunday, featuring remarks from Colorado’s governor, Bill Ritter—a Catholic Democrat, with orthodox views. Among the reasons for Obama’s selection of Senator Joe Biden as his running mate, the most compelling may have been the fact that Biden is a practicing Catholic. (It may be an indication of Biden’s potential in this regard that a Web site called Catholics Against Joe Biden appeared within hours of the selection.)

Obama’s pro-choice-but-against-abortion formulation has been taken up by the Party, and is reflected in the Democratic platform. This apparent softening on the abortion issue, however rhetorical, has allowed for a resurgence of the “consistent ethic of life” construct, now being aggressively proposed by Catholic liberals as the proper Catholic approach to issues.

John McCain’s religious-outreach effort has been attenuated at best, perhaps reflecting the candidate’s pronounced ambivalence toward the religious right, and the insistent agenda of cultural conservatives in general. McCain admitted as much in July, when George Stephanopoulos, of ABC, asked him about his position on gay adoption. He doesn’t support it, McCain said, but he added, “It’s not the reason why I’m running for President of the United States.”

Independents and moderates may admire that attitude, but it is a cold bath to cause-driven activists, who, in another time, would have been able to count upon harmonizing their efforts with those of the national Republican campaign. Activists in California, anticipating a ruling by the state Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage, launched a drive to put an initiative on the ballot in November that would amend the state’s constitution to ban gay marriage. The proposal prompted an extensive support effort—forty-day fasts, prayer marathons, and the like—among Church leaders in California and the two other states that have similar measures, culminating in a daylong stadium rally on the weekend before Election Day. “There has been no dialogue with the McCain campaign at all,” says Jim Garlow, the pastor of the Skyline Church, in suburban San Diego, who is one of the drive’s organizers. “If I were Senator McCain, I would do everything I could to identify with this issue. I don’t know that he will. I have no idea what his campaign is about. At this point, he seems quite low-key on these types of things.”

On the evangelical right, there is a pronounced sense that the movement, as a political force, is adrift. This is, in part, the result of a vacuum of leadership, as the movement faces its first election season in a generation without Jerry Falwell on the scene. Younger evangelicals, put off by the image of the Christian right created by Falwell and Pat Robertson, are fiercely pro-life but seem less inclined than their elders to commit themselves to Republican Party politics. Karl Rove has suggested that the movement, though still central to the Republican coalition, may have reached a plateau. “There were a lot of people in 2004 who were motivated to participate in the process because of what they felt to be a personal connection between themselves and President Bush, in part because of the faith link,” Rove told me. “I don’t think they feel that with either candidate this time around. And one thing we know about people of faith, particularly Protestant evangelicals, is that they tend to flow in and out of the system. Evangelicals, certain elements of them, have a very strong tradition of believing that they need to withdraw from the public life of the country.”

George Bush, who was his own best religious-outreach operative, might have been able to fill the vacuum and rally the faith-directed base, and Bush nostalgia is already showing itself among some on the religious right. “George Bush knew how to walk into a room of evangelicals and in five minutes send all the right signals,” Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky, told me. “He almost could have left the room having accomplished in five minutes all that he wanted to accomplish. And that is not the case with John McCain. John McCain can walk into the room and in five minutes have people more puzzled about who he is than they were before he came in.”

The signals that McCain does send, especially to the young, are not necessarily helpful to his cause. “You know, a part of it is McCain the man,” Mohler says. “A part of it is McCain the candidate. And a part of it is just . . . his age. This is a man who wore a cardigan sweater when he was campaigning in Florida. I mean, I grew up in Florida, and that’s sending a signal for sure.”

It may be that the greatest motivator for politically conservative Christians is the prospect of a Barack Obama Administration. By midsummer, James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, had reconsidered his vow never to support McCain. On his radio broadcast, with Mohler as his guest, Dobson reiterated McCain’s many faults but allowed that even McCain was better than Obama—whom Mohler characterized as “the most liberal candidate, I think, to gain a party nomination probably in the history of this country.” Dobson proceeded to offer the most tepid semi-endorsement possible. “I have considered the fact that elections always involve imperfect candidates,” he said. “There are no perfect human beings. And you always have to choose between two flawed individuals; that’s the way we are all made. So it comes down to this—and I never thought I would hear myself saying this, but it’s where I am—that, while I am not endorsing Senator John McCain, the possibility is there that I might. And that’s all I can say at this time.”

A nose-holding base does not often deliver election victories, but few evangelicals could imagine what McCain might say or do, with any degree of authenticity, that could excite the base. The prospect of McCain’s appearance with Barack Obama at Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, on August 16th, made many evangelicals cringe. Mohler was among those who expected the worst from what seemed, given Warren’s disdain for sharp partisanship, a venue perfectly tailored to Obama’s strengths. But McCain surprised. For many evangelicals, the event turned on the question, posed by Warren to both candidates separately, “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?” Obama’s response, characteristically nuanced, came across as a dodge. “Well,” he began, “I think that, whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.” Asked the same question, McCain didn’t hesitate. “At the moment of conception,” he said, to the loud approval of the congregation.

“I think it was a good start,” said Rove, who believes that McCain still needs to reveal more to the public about his personal faith. On Albert Mohler’s radio show two days later, the verdict on the event was less tentative. “John McCain just blew Obama right straight out of the water” was one comment from a typical caller. “Politics has a way of making strange bedfellows,” Ralph Reed says. “The irony is that McCain has a chance to win as large a percentage of the evangelical vote as Bush did in 2000, and maybe even 2004, which no one would have predicted six months ago.” Shortly afterward, of course, McCain thrilled his conservative base further with the selection of the fervently Christian Governor Sarah Palin, of Alaska, as his Vice-Presidential nominee. (“A home run,” Reed declared to the Times, and Dobson called the choice “outstanding.”)

The Saddleback event illuminated Obama’s greatest liability for faith-based voters: his resolute support for abortion rights. Many, including Doug Kmiec, winced when Obama said, at a town-hall meeting last spring, that he supported sex education because he didn’t want his daughters “punished with a baby.” The week after the Saddleback event, conservative commentators advanced the theme that Obama supported infanticide, as evidenced by his opposition to a 2003 bill in the Illinois legislature requiring medical personnel to attempt to sustain the lives of babies that survive abortion procedures. Obama’s various explanations—that the bill threatened the rights established by Roe v. Wade; that his opposition was largely procedural—did not stand up well to scrutiny, and even Doug Kmiec admitted to having doubts.

“Here is a bit of an Achilles’ heel,” Kmiec says. “Senator Obama the candidate, as many have observed, is different from Senator Obama the legislator. That’s the unanswered question about the Senator. And it’s a question that does require a leap of faith on my part, and on the part of anyone who comes to him from perspectives like my own.”

Kmiec has decided that he is willing to take that leap. Obama has no reason to expect a mass exodus of religious conservatives from the Republican ranks, but if he can persuade even a portion of those voters who were swayed to Bush’s side by the Rove religious machine, it could be enough.

In Rove’s view, Obama has already begun to transform the faith-unfriendly Democratic image that made the Republicans’ 2000 and 2004 strategies possible.

“The overt hostility of some elements of the Democratic Party is being usefully scrubbed away by Obama,” Rove says. “And, for that, everybody in America ought to be thankful.”


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