Steven makes a bold statement that Catholicism has nothing to do with the Catholic Vote in Democratic primaries. That’s a bit extreme, although with the non-negotiable life issues of the Catholic church taken off the table among Democrats they do often seem Catholic-lite.
Let’s remember, however, that Catholicism is a worldview before it is a list of moral teachings or policy positions. If a candidate can create in the Catholic voter an awareness that “he sees the world the way I do,” he doesn’t have to be “right” on every issue. I think that kind of awareness, call it a common vision, is at play when you raise the question about Obama having the same policy positions as Clinton on health care, children, and families. That being the case, you ask why Obama wouldn’t be able to attract the Catholic vote “over time.” In our January article on Obama and the Catholic vote, Steve Wagner and I argued that Obama, unlike Clinton, had yet to create a social justice persona in the eyes of Catholic voters, and would be unlikely to get it done before November.
But, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say Obama will succeed in creating a visible social justice message in time for the general election. Then he has a different problem, that problem is the above-mentioned worldview — he will have a hard time making his social justice package into a family issue, as the Clintons have done so successfully. Obama, especially with Rev. Wright’s shadow hanging over him, will continue to appear more interested in appealing to political classes, in the McGovern tradition, than to American families worried about the problems of raising children and grandchildren in a hostile culture.
The core of the Catholic vote does not share the political left’s principle concern for repairing inequities suffered by the poor, minorities, homosexuals, and women. What primarily concerns them are those institutions influencing family well-being and accepted norms of public morality — schools, media, entertainment, the impact of the Internet. The central finding of the Crisis Catholic Voter Project (1998-2000) remains a key factor — active Catholic voters want political leaders who oppose moral decay and seek social renewal.
Allow me to make one qualification. In this election cycle, it remains to be seen how the Iraq War will affect the Catholic vote. Many Catholics view the Vatican as “opposed” to the war; some think there is an official Catholic position that the war is unjust. Benedict XVI could have given a big gift to the Democrats by emphasizing his disagreement with President Bush and the GOP on this issue. He didn’t, and I think that was deliberate; he did not want to undercut a president who often expresses his concern for building a “culture of life.”
If McCain does not make his case on the war to Catholics in terms they understand, it could be the deciding factor of the election.