Benedictions: The Pope in America

Benedictions: The Pope in America


Jeremiah, Obama, and Catholics

posted by David Gibson

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is back in the news, delivering some fiery (the indispensible adjective with the Rev. Wright) rhetoric yesterday at the close of a meeting of the NAACP’s Detroit branch. Wright’s unrepentant talk and prophetic style are likely to make you smile if you are a black Christian or Hillary Clinton, and if they make you wince then you may well be Barack Obama or…Roman Catholic.
Yes, many have traced Obama’s difficulties in attracting blue-collar Catholic “Reagan Democrats” to his lack of working-class elan (that silver-spoon-fed Hillary can out-maneuver a community organizer from urban Chicago is a tribute to her political machine) or, more disturbingly, his race. The Pew Forum’s resident politics-and-religion mandarin, John Green, explores Obama’s uphill battle with white Catholics in this Q&A, noting that Obama lost the Catholic vote by more than 2-1 on Pennsylvania, and Indiana next week could be more of the same.
A couple points to make: One is that Obama is having trouble attracting all regular church-goers, which is odd given that he is the only regular church-goer among the three remaining candidates, a man who remains loyal to his congregation (where Wright was pastor until recently) and his denomination, the largely white UCC. But Green also turns the question around, asking whether Clinton has an “African-American problem” or an “unaffiliated problem”–two groups she’ll need to win the nomination, and the general election.
In that vein I would also ask whether the Catholic Church has an “African-American problem.” In other words, is part of the problem for Catholic voters that the Catholic Church is on the white side of the racial-religious divide–which Wright noted last night, an indisputable point–that marks American Christianity? There are just 2.5 million black Catholics out of more than 65 million American Catholics, and many of those are Caribbean or African immigrants with little in common with the Southern, Protestant, and slave-era heritage African-Americans of Wright’s congregation. Indeed, one reason there are so few black Catholics is that the American hierarchy, fearing a schism like those that afflicted other churches during the Civil War, did not speak out with one voice against slavery.
Black Catholics are a remarkable community, and one that could and should inspire the rest of the American church. Yet they are often overlooked in the focus on our enormous Latino growth, and they are often alienated by the shift back toward a more strait-laced, Old World liturgy. It is a shame that Pope Benedict could not have attended a black Catholic liturgy during his visit–now that is the holy rolling Spirit. Among other things, Hurricane Katrina also inflicted a devastating wound on the black Catholic community concentrated in New Orleans, an issue I explored, along with the history of black Catholics in the U.S., in this 2006 Wall Street Journal column.
In short, American Catholics find black Christian rhetoric completely “foreign” for all sorts of cultural and demographic reasons. They never hear this kind of preaching, and one wonders whether they should listen more closely; they might hear some familiar notes. Such as the insistence on communal spirituality and solidarity, one of the principal themes of Benedict’s own homilies this month. Or the focus on social justice–a tradition and teaching that has been so crucial to lifting up our own Catholic forebears. Or the powerful laments–jeremiads one might say–that characterize the preaching of our own Catholic leadership, albeit it in a different key.
For a good context, read Father John Kavanaugh’s insightful (and powerful) column on the two Jeremiahs (biblical and contemporary) in the April 14 edition of America:

The problem with much preaching in Christian churches is that we apply the prophetic indignation easily to our enemies, but rarely to ourselves, our church, our nation. But if we think Jeremiah and Jesus are not addressing us, we have nothing to learn from either—at our peril. Was the Reverend Wright speaking in this tradition when he gave his infamous talk after the evils of 9/11? I think so. His sermon was a commentary on revenge and the violence that returns to those who do violence, especially against the innocent. Wright recounted our national history of killing children, from the Sioux to the Japanese. All just causes, one might sincerely think. But all horrific. And this is where the preacher talked about the “chickens coming home to roost.” As Wright continued, he pointed out that violence and hatred beget violence and hatred. And then the preacher turned to something that possibly no one is aware of from the YouTube clips. Having been in New Jersey on that September day of “unthinkable acts,” Jeremiah Wright was drawn to examine his own relationship to God, his lack of prayer, his honesty. “Is it real or is it fake? Is it forever or is it for show?”

One needn’t agree with Wright, or like him, or his words, or his tone. But every Catholic could ask themselves why it is that so few African-Americans find a lasting spiritual home in our church. Pope Benedict urged the American bishops to continue the church’s educational mission to urban areas, where Catholic schools have been a lifeline to many black children. Yet those schools, like all Catholic schools, labor under severe financial strains. Even so, many African-Americans graduate from Catholic schools, and appreciate their education. But they don’t become Catholic. Why?
None of these questions will be answered in time to help Barack Obama, I suspect. But perhaps if he is the nominee, and if he wins the general election, Obama could build a bridge to the Catholic community based on the principles they already share. And perhaps Catholics could walk across it.
Two final suggestions for those who want to explore the issue more deeply: Check out this post (and subsequent vigorous discussion) at dotCommonweal by Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame, and a member of Obama’s National Catholic Advisory Council. Also check out this Bill Moyers interview with Wright, the pastor’s first since the brouhaha erupted.



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Colin Taylor

posted April 29, 2008 at 2:43 pm


I think there are two questions here. One question is a normative one; does the Catholic church have a problem relating to African-Americans? Quite frankly, I think the answer is no.
The second, and more pressing, question is a politically imminent one. How will Barack Obama fare with Catholic voters in the fall? I think the answer is simpler than many people realize. He’ll do well. There are 2 main reasons. First, once Catholics in the general electorate get to know Barack Obama, his record of working with Catholic churches as an organizer in Chicago, his message of hope and unity over division and fear, they will flock to him. Second, Hillary Clinton’s Catholic supporters will, in large part, go to Barack Obama. There is no reason to suspect that those voters who support Hillary now won’t support Barack when he is the nominee. In fact, polls show that they will. They may choose Hillary because they know her better as she’s been in the public eye for longer; but they will move to Barack when they have a choice of McCain or Obama.
As a Catholic voter, I’m impressed by Obama’s message, record and character. I’m also hopeful that many more Catholics will see what I do come November.



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Charles Laster

posted April 29, 2008 at 3:23 pm


Obama will not get the Catholic vote, not out of bigotry, but from a growing sense that Obama’s an elitist,out of touch with issues held important by many Catholics and working-class americans. For one thing, the Jeremiah Wright issue’s not going away, and Catholics spent too much time to finally get accepted as patriotic by a majority protestant country to embrace a candidate whose spiritual mentor calls on God to ‘Damn’ America, a land of freedom and refuge to most Catholic Christians. Another thing: the words Obama used at the S.F. fundraiser, attaching religious faith to bitterness, will also stick. People hold their faith due to deeply felt experience, not economic bitterness. The Catholics struggled too long against Marxist/Stalinist tyranny to embrace somebody with a marxist model of religious faith.
Without the white working-class Catholic vote, Obama will get skunked as bad as Dukakis. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!



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Jennifer Braun

posted April 30, 2008 at 10:54 am


Why does the mainstream media fail to report the fact that african-Americans consistently vote 90+% in favor of Senator Obama over Senator Clinton? Clearly there is racial preference voting going on when one group overwhelmingly votes for the candidate of the same race over another, equally qualifed candidate of a different race. Back before people were afraid to speak the truth, we’d call that racism. Instead we get stories like this one, claiming the Catholic Church is somehow at fault. Wow, how courageous. . .



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dragnet

posted April 30, 2008 at 12:05 pm


To Jennifer Braun:
It’s not racist when most blacks vote for Obama because black people have ALWAYS supported white Democratic candidates no matter what. Both Gore & Kerry got 90% black support. Race just isn’t an issue for us in this respect.
The difference is that much of Hillary’s support comes from whites who have never and would never vote for black person just because he/she is black. Many of these people are voting against Obama just because he is black. I know of no black people who are voting for Obama because Clinton is white. In fact, blacks have–until recently–retained a remarkable affinty for white candidates from the Kennedys to the Clintons.
All clear?



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Doug

posted April 30, 2008 at 12:29 pm


Here Here Dragnet:
First of all, as someone whose economic situation was described by Obama’s comments in San Francisco, Obama should not be called an elitist for telling the truth. Quite frankly, I find it amazing that people are actually willing to vote against their own interest in order to feel some sense of vindication.
Furthermore, would Hillary Clinton been held to the same standard if she had made those statements? I don’t think so, given the fact that it has been reported that, when referring to those who voted against Bill Clinton back in the 1990′s, she was quoted as saying, “screw’em”. It’s interesting that this particular incident wasn’t examined as widely as those used to smear Obama.



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Patrick Rothwell

posted April 30, 2008 at 1:07 pm


“Black Catholics are a remarkable community, and one that could and should inspire the rest of the American church. Yet they are often overlooked in the focus on our enormous Latino growth, and they are often alienated by the shift back toward a more strait-laced, Old World liturgy.”
This is a very dangerous overgeneralization. I attend a predominately black Catholic parish, and while gospel hymns are welcome and beloved, the liturgical sensibilities of the congregation are decidely old school and have retained many liturgical practices that progressives deride as “preconciliar,” “old world,” or even “reactionary.” Some of these people are the descendants of southern Maryland Catholic slaveowners and their families have been Catholic for centuries. By all means, the black Catholic experience should not be overlooked, and the fact that the Church in America treated them as second-class citizens for so many years is a cause for sorrow. But do not be surprised that in some important ways, their religious sensibilities, beliefs, and practices, are often more like Bishop Bruskewitz than the editorial board of the National Catholic Reporter.



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Patrick Rothwell

posted April 30, 2008 at 1:09 pm


On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that they won’t vote Democratic in the general election.



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Jennifer Braun

posted April 30, 2008 at 1:39 pm


To Dragnet:
Sorry, but voting for someone solely because of their race is the definition of racism; 90+% of african-American Democrats have done so during this primary season, whereas roughly 65% of white Democrats have. It’s wrong either way, and offering a double standard or excuse as to why it’s “justified” for african-Americans to do so is polarizing.



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dragnet

posted April 30, 2008 at 3:09 pm


Black people are not voting for Obama solely because of his race. And don’t forget Clinton actually led Obama for black votes in polling for many months–even after black voters had gotten to know him. And black superdelegates overwhelmingly favored her. The massive migration toward Obama only began after her campaign’s clumsy attempts to exploit his race before and after the South Carolina primary.
The simple fact is that Obama understands black issues better because he spent years in urban black communities in Chicago as a low-paid community organizer working on the issues that most profoundly affect black people. Because of this we know he understands us. Clinton understand womens’ issues better because so much of her career has been spent fighting for womens’ (and childrens’) issues–her very life is proof of her passion for those causes. That’s why women are so enthusiastic about her and overwhelmingly support her candidacy—not because they are sexist against Obama.
And for your information, the defintion of racism is “to prejudge based on race”. That’s not what’s happening here and nothing you say can change that fact.
I’ll say this again: black people don’t have a problem voting for white candidates we do it all the time. We love white candidates. Up until two months ago you couldn’t say anything bad about the Clintons in my old neighborhood–and we still love the Kennedys. The vast majority of white people don’t have a problem voting for black candidates either. But there is a small but persistent group of whites who are voting for Clinton because Obama is black. These are people who have never and will never vote for a black person. Period. That is incontrovertible and in no way equivalent with black sentiment whatsoever.
Your claims are just too simplistic, silly and ahistorical to be true. If stupidity could be harnessed as an energy source, you would be the new Saudi Arabia.



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Jennifer Braun

posted April 30, 2008 at 3:34 pm


Dear Dragnet:
Although you are good at making sweeping generalizations, (e.g. “because of this we know he knows us”; “that’s why women are so enthusiastic about her”; “we love white candidates”; “there is a small and persistent group of whites . . .”), you can’t seem to recognize that 90+% of a group of people voting for a candidate that shares their racial characteristics likely represents a high prevalence of race-based voting. Race-based voting, which seems to be happening to a large extent with african-Americans and Obama, is simply wrong. Your failure to acknowledge this, as well as your decision to end your message with a personal attack on me, makes me hope that you are not representative of all of Senator Obama’s supporters.



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dragnet

posted April 30, 2008 at 3:58 pm


Okay: why 90%+? Why is that your cutoff line?? Why not 55%? Or 75%? Are you saying that if only 80% of black voters supported Obama then it wouldn’t be race-based voting? Obama only got 80% of the black vote in South Carolina. So does this mean that black voters in that state weren’t voting based on race?? He got far less than that in New York–so what about black voters in this state, Jennifer–racist or not?? Or would you perhaps lower that 90% threshold just to lump all us black people in together to fit your erroneous claim?? Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley-Braun also ran for president and are very well known and respected in our community—how many black votes did they get?? I’m sorry that the facts don’t fit in with what you espouse.
Clinton has been getting over 60% of the white woman vote in some states–and even more among women far advanced in age. But rather than assume that they are supporting her for racist/sexist reason, I instead decided to consider more relevant issues–like her obvious rapport with them and experience dealing with the issues they find most pressing. Or is 60% too low a cutoff number? How convenient…
Obama has also collected the overwhelming majority of the under-30 vote. Any chance that’s due to their systematic discrimination against older candidates?
The problem with your argument and arguments like this is that there are simpler, less asinine and more likely explanations than the one you are offering. I am sure there are a few blacks voting for Obama because he is (half) black. But for the overwhelmingly majority of us–maybe even 90% perhaps–that’s not even close to the only reason why and your attempt pigeonhole us all as race-based voters is ignorant and disgusting. What you are doing is trying to obscure the reality of this situation by attributing the modes and biases of the dominant group to the oppressed. It’s an old trick and you’ve been called on it so deal.



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JL

posted April 30, 2008 at 4:30 pm


Jennifer,
The main reason 90% of blacks are not voting for Hillary Clinton is that she said Martin Luther King made speeches, while it took Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights bill, after denigrating speeches for two weeks. Substitute the Pope for Martin Luther King and you would see a large %age of catholics not voting for Hillary Clinton, a white person. Would you then be calling those catholics religious bigots?
The fact is you only look at his contest through the prism of race. There are many larger themes going on in this primary. Hope vs Fear. Optimism vs. Pessimism. Disgust with Washington politics vs. complacency with it. Change vs. Status Quo. Community vs. Cronyism. I can tell you for good reasons – many of them economic – the change candidate will always win among blacks, whether he’s black or white. Remember 90% of blacks voted for Bill Clinton.



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Jennifer Braun

posted April 30, 2008 at 4:37 pm


Dear Dragnet:
Since you know nothing about me, I’m surprised to hear you accuse me of “attributing the modes and biases of the dominant group to the oppressed.” I don’t understand why you are reluctant to accept the possibility that a large percentage of african-Americans are voting for Obama because of his race, as presumably are a large number of whites voting for Clinton, and in either case it is wrong. On another matter, your continued name calling serves only to hurt your credibility and you might wish to take a course in argumentation if you wish to persuade people in the future.



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dragnet

posted April 30, 2008 at 4:46 pm


i don’t have to know you to know what you are doing. i know what you said–that is enough.
“I don’t understand why you are reluctant to accept the possibility that a large percentage of african-Americans are voting for Obama because of his race, as presumably are a large number of whites voting for Clinton, and in either case it is wrong.”
That’s just it–I DON’T BELIEVE THAT LARGE NUMBERS OF WHITES ARE VOTING FOR CLINTON BECAUSE OBAMA IS BLACK. That’s the difference between us—YOU believe that race is the prime mover and the key motivating factor for the electorate. I don’t. I simply think regarding the vast majority of people, other explanations are more likely—for black and whites alike. Race is your fixation, not mine..
And you never did answer the other myriad points that I made. This is further evidence that your position is ill-considered and that you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.
My aim was never to persuade you. It was to educate you and to call you on your bullsh!t.
Mission accomplished.



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mrmissy

posted May 2, 2008 at 9:53 am


Is this some kind of official movement now? You’ve already stated that 2.5 million Blacks are Catholic. Is this some kind of short-coming?
Why aren’t more Blacks Catholic? Because they don’t want to be, maybe?
Is that so wrong?
Is this a trick question?
Oh, those Blacks. Will they ever measure up to the ideal we Whites have for them?!!!!



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