How Catholics Are Judging Obama and the Democrats

Catholic Voters Ballot Religion
Left; Peter Reali / Corbis: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

This year's Al Smith Dinner — the annual gala that raises funds for the Archdiocese of New York and has become an essential social ticket for the city's political and media class — will be remembered as a rare cease-fire moment in the heated 2008 presidential campaign. Exchanging rolled-up shirt sleeves for white ties, John McCain and Barack Obama cracked each other up on topics that usually result in outraged press statements when raised on the campaign trail. "I got my name, Barack, from my father," deadpanned Obama, "and I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn't think I'd ever run for President."

What has gone largely unnoticed, however, is that the evening marked just the second time in 20 years that both presidential candidates had been invited to attend the gathering of Catholic elites. The event itself is a strictly nonpartisan affair. However, the question of whether the Archdiocese extends an invitation to certain candidates has produced no small amount of political drama in past election years. Obama's presence on the dais at the Waldorf-Astoria is just one sign that this may be the Democrats' best year for Catholic support in decades.

Although the American Catholic community is too diverse to usefully refer to it as a monolithic bloc, presidential campaigns have long considered Catholic voters an essential part of a winning strategy. They are the largest single religious constituency in the electorate (33 million voted in 2004) and have aligned themselves with the winner in every presidential election going back to 1960, with the exception of 2000.

So it was perhaps no surprise that the Al Smith Dinner, which gives candidates the chance to hobnob with Catholic opinion leaders just weeks before an election, became what Theodore White called "a ritual of American politics." John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the first contenders for the White House to share the dais at the event in 1960. Over the next two decades it was a standard campaign stop, a light-hearted evening to honor the memory of the first Catholic to win a major party's presidential nomination.

The trouble — at least, for Democrats — started in 1980. The Roe v. Wade decision had elevated the political importance of abortion, and while Catholics tentatively supported Jimmy Carter in 1976, they soon determined he was not the pro-life politician they had assumed. When Carter appeared with Ronald Reagan at the Al Smith Dinner, the crowd embraced the GOP challenger with warm applause. Carter was booed.

By 1984, New York's newly-appointed Archbishop John O'Connor had already spent much of his short time in the position taking on the state's two most prominent Catholic Democrats: Governor Mario Cuomo and Vice Presidential-nominee Geraldine Ferraro. By the time the dinner rolled along, tensions between the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party had become so strained that the Democratic nominee Walter Mondale simply skipped the event. Reagan attended alone and, on Election Day, captured 61% of Catholic voters, the largest share that any Republican presidential candidate had ever earned. No GOP candidate has matched it since.

After Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush traded passive-aggressive jabs in 1988, O'Connor simply didn't invite the presidential candidates in either 1992 or 1996. The slight was particularly painful for Bill Clinton, who developed an affinity for the Catholic Church as an undergraduate at Georgetown University. And it was compounded by the fact that in 1992, O'Connor invited Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey to be the featured speaker. The pro-life Catholic Democrat had himself been denied a speaking slot at that summer's Democratic National Convention and the dinner arrangements were seen as payback.

A truce seemed in sight in 2000 when O'Connor was succeeded by Cardinal Edward Egan, a prelate far less interested in making political waves. And indeed he invited Al Gore and George W. Bush to the event that fall. Just four years later, though, both Bush and John Kerry were left off the list. "The issues in this year's campaign," explained an archdiocesan spokesman then, "could provoke division and disagreement." Critics speculated that church leaders were more concerned about keeping Kerry, a pro-choice Roman Catholic, off the stage.

Why then was Obama welcomed to the Al Smith Dinner, his hand on Cardinal Egan's shoulder as they chuckled together, while Kerry had to stay away? It helps that Obama is not Catholic. Some Catholics have criticized his support for abortion rights, but as he is not a member of their tradition, they don't feel the same need to sanction him. But more importantly, the political landscape for Catholics has changed since 2004.

In a hierarchical tradition like Catholicism, debates don't happen very often. Right now, however, American Catholics are going through a revival of the arguments that took place in the 1980s between bishops who believed abortion ought to be the top political and moral focus of the church and the camp led by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin that argued for a more "consistent ethic of life."

In early October, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton released a letter to be read in every pulpit in the diocese that said, in part: "Abortion is the issue this year and every year in every campaign. [Catholics] are wrong when they assert that abortion is only one of a multitude of issues of equal importance. Abortion must take precedence over every other issue." But just last fall, the American bishops released Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility, a document that reminded Catholics that "all life issues are connected." Over the past few years, archbishops around the country have spoken out in favor of immigration reform, opposing the use of torture, and advocating policies that focus more on the poor.

As a result, many Catholics can now argue that neither party fits precisely with Catholic social teaching — the Democratic position on abortion is still unacceptable but so are GOP positions on education and health care and the war in Iraq. This realization is reflected in changing party identification — as of this past February, 41% of Catholic voters called themselves Independents, an 11-point increase since 2004. And in opinion polls, Catholics are evenly divided between Obama and McCain.

Obama has also benefitted from the resurgence of progressive Catholics. The Catholic Left used to be a vigorous social and political presence, from the work of Dorothy Day to the activism of the Berrigan brothers to disarmament advocates in the 1980s. But by the time Kerry ran in 2004, there were very few Catholic voices echoing his insistence that church teaching addressed more than just abortion or pushing back against suggestions that he and other pro-choice Catholics should be denied communion.

This void, and Kerry's defeat, prompted a group of progressive Catholics to create their own infrastructure after 2004. When two young graduate students first launched Catholics United, they had $1,000 in seed money and were operating out of a dorm room. Four years later, the nonpartisan organization has more than 30,000 members and a $200,000 budget. This month they are sending a direct mail piece titled "What Does Being Pro-Life Really Mean?" to 50,000 Catholic households in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The same message is plastered across billboards in heavily Catholic swing states.

Pro-life Catholics have also spoken out to argue that Obama's support for an abortion reduction strategy — which he mentioned in both his acceptance speech and in the third presidential debate — makes him a more "pro-life" candidate than McCain. The GOP's single focus on overturning Roe, they argue, ignores the progress that could be made in lowering the abortion rate through changes in economic policies and by reforming adoption laws. Most recently, two high-profile Obama supporters — former Reagan Justice Department official Douglas Kmiec and actor Martin Sheen — have filmed a series of short videos making this case that are being disseminated by the Democratic PAC Matthew 25.

Despite all of the arguments about what it means to be pro-life and which party best represents Catholic social teaching, however, the election is likely to come down to one issue for most Catholic voters: the economy. Other voting blocs, such as white evangelicals, have also expressed strong concerns about the economic situation but have not shifted over to support the Democratic ticket, primarily because of a strong identification with the GOP. But Catholics have a different relationship with the Democratic Party. Many grew up with grandparents who hung portraits of FDR on the living room wall and have parents who celebrated Kennedy's victory as one of their own.

In a year like 2008, when the economy trumps social issues, Catholics are most likely to return to their roots in the Democratic Party. And that's particularly true when they hear fellow Catholics arguing that Democrats reflect their religious values. McCain may have gotten a longer standing ovation on his way to the podium at the Al Smith Dinner and dropped references to "defending the rights of the unborn" in among his jokes. But it was Obama who won over Al Smith IV, the event's emcee and great-grandson of the historic candidate. "Awesome," Smith told Obama after the Democrat had finished speaking. "That was just awesome!"

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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