David Gibson suggests that the lack of support for Barack Obama among Catholic voters may be due to an “African-American problem” in the Catholic Church.
Six weeks ago I got a call from someone advising the Obama campaign on the Catholic vote. In spite of a targeted effort toward Catholics, Obama was doing poorly and some negative press was beginning to show up. An article at Politico.com elicited angry phone calls from the Obama campaign resulting in a change of the headline from “Obama support soft among Catholics” to “Obama slow to gain among Catholics.”
This Obama advisor was worried that Catholic voters were going to be tagged as “racist” unless the candidate could figure out a way to garner more support. Obama and his campaign haven’t figured it out in spite of the high profile endorsement of Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA). Now the issue of racism and the Catholic voter is hanging in the air. Gibson’s post doesn’t really make that charge — he raises a larger question about the American Church — but the issue is now surely on the table.
Gibson links to a Q & A with Pew’s John Green about Obama’s “uphill battle with white Catholics.” Green’s analysis of the exit polls provides no clear evidence of Catholic voters having a race problem with Barack Obama. Green’s only comment is this: “And frankly, Obama’s race may also have been an issue for some voters.” In support of this, Green offers no evidence and does not pretend to.
Gibson and Green don’t even raise the possibility that Catholic voters are turned off by Obama’s positions on the issues. Again and again he has reminded them of his pro-abortion position, saying on a televised debate with Hillary Clinton that the only act as a Senator he regretted was voting for Teri Schaivo’s parents to have their day in court over the treatment of their daughter. Democrats will say this is a “single-issue” kind of comment, but they don’t understand that issues like partial-birth abortion and Teri Schiavo have powerful symbolic value among socially-conservative Catholic voters. When hear, for example, Sen. Obama justifies partial-birth abortion, many Catholic voters, particularly those who voted for George W. Bush in the last two elections (47% and 52%), will find it difficult to view him as a candidate who will benefit their families. Catholics, by the way, tend to be very patriotic so Rev. Wright’s angry denunciations of our nation underscore Obama as being out of touch with ordinary American families.
In my opinion, race is only a small factor in the lack of Catholic support for Obama. If he had the positions of former Maryland Lt. Gov. MIchael Steele (black and Catholic) he would be pulling Catholic voters away from the GOP in droves. (McCain would do well to pick Steele as a running mate.)
Regarding the larger issue raised by Gibson, I think that white Catholics have the same problem understanding “black Christian rhetoric” as they do “Southern white Evangelical rhetoric.” It’s not a sign of racism but regionalism.
I am intrigued, however, by Gibson’s argument that the failure of Catholic bishops to condemn slavery led to the relatively small number of African-American Catholics. The Church has undoubtedly served the African-American community through their inner city schools. I am familiar with the effort of lay Catholics and dioceses to keep urban Catholic schools open for minority children, mostly African-American. I have been told about many subsequent conversions to the Catholic faith by these students, but I have no idea if anyone keeps statistics about this or tracks these students after graduation.
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