Does Catholic Outreach Matter?

dubois.jpgDoes Catholic outreach matter?
Even after Hillary Clinton’s impressive wins among Catholics in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana (though Obama did make modest gains among Catholics in that state and North Carolina yesterday) the conventional wisdom was that economic issues–not religion–were driving Catholics to support her over Obama. These Catholics, the thinking goes, overlap with the white working class voters that Obama has had difficult connecting to lately, particularly after his remarks about small towners and the Rev. Wright flap.
As the Obama camp has struggled to win white Catholics, his advisors have joined the chorus of voices claiming that the notion of the Catholic voting bloc is more or less a myth. In a memo to reporters after the Pennsylvania primary, when Obama lost Catholics to Clinton by more than two-to-one, the campaign made its case:
[P]undits will often discuss the “Catholic vote” in monolithic terms, suggesting that American Catholics vote in blocs. From universities to think tanks, this notion has been refuted. There are nearly 70 million American Catholics, young and old, rich and poor, white, African American, Latino, Asian. When other important factors are considered, often the impact of this vote becomes difficult to assess.
If the Obama campaign really believe this, why has it spent so much time and resources trying to close the gap among Catholics, hiring a fulltime Catholic outreach director and rolling out an impressive National Catholic Advisory Board?
God-o-Meter put the question today in an interview with Joshua DuBois, Obama’s faith outreach director. Here’s how he responded:


Catholic voters and Catholic families are American families and they share the same concerns as other Americans have about filling up the gas tank, so our religious outreach is not focused necessarily about talking about religion, but on reaching out to religious communities and talking about shared values issues like health care and employment. So Catholic outreach and other religious outreach allows us to penetrate certain social networks and communities that we might not otherwise reach. And once we’re there, the focus isn’t on speaking to religious concerns, we speaking to concerns shared by all Americans. And as those communities get to know him, the more they’ll support him.
Religion is not what’s motivating these folks. It’s a lack of exposure and information and getting to know Senator Obama. It’s important to let folks know you care about the group that they’re a part of. So the main reason for doing religious outreach is so that people of faith know they will be valued and listened to and that there will be dedicated individuals on his staff to hear and process their concerns.
It’s important to reach out to meet people where the are, and one place people are, so that a Catholics for Obama barbecue is saying that we’re coming to you and that you don’t have to come to us with your values–we’re going to meet you where you are. Sure, there are certain parts of Catholic social teaching that we discuss, but I cant’ stress enough that it’s the basic American values… it’s a myth that we’re walking into these sessions [with Catholic voters] with Catholic doctrine in hand.


It sounds like DuBois is saying that Catholic outreach matters for the same way that outreach to bowlers or snowmobile drivers would. Not so much because those folks voters are driven by an urge to shape public police to help the cause of bowling or snowmobile driving, but because but because they would be drawn to a candidate who values their interests. And religion, of course, religion is much more than an interest–it’s what believers organize their lives and shape their attitudes about life around. Which makes it all the more important for politicians to show that they appreciate that force and to try to connect with them around it.
You listening, John McCain?


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Charles Cosimano

posted May 7, 2008 at 6:12 pm

Obama is merely doing what politicians always do. Look at it from his campaign perspective. He has one big, glaring weakness, older, white, working-class ethnic voters. Now, in the great scheme of things they don’t count for much. They are largely retired, or obsolete people with obsolete skills and more of a drain on the country than a benefit. (Remember, this is the Obama campaign view) But there are a lot of them.
He has the votes of the younger folks. He has a good chance of the votes of those who view this group as, to put it mildly, a failed branch of evolution, but he needs enough of them to vote for him to win. He knows he won’t get all of them, or even a majority. He just needs enough of them to carry enough states to win the electoral vote.
So he is going to pander to them as best he can without alienating those who, frankly, despise them. The religion thing is secondary. It is a classification to make organizers happy. He will appeal to them on economic issues with a thin, very thin cultural veneer thrown in assuming that they are stupid enough to fall for it. And a lot of them will be.

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posted May 7, 2008 at 7:33 pm

I think I tend to agree with DuBois’s assessment, that religion isn’t what’s motivating Catholics. The only point I would add is that it isn’t just that Catholic voters put other issues before religion but that Catholic voters are even varied in their religion. We don’t all follow the official teachings of the Church.
That is, if Catholics all believed the same and therefore voted the same, I think you would also have to assume they’d vote more conservative than either of the democrats running. Abortion rights, divorce, access to contraception, homosexuality: these are all against the offical teaching, but in my experience, you can’t assume a Catholic is against any of them, much less whether they will vote based on any of those issues.

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posted May 8, 2008 at 8:58 am

Good points. The writer Amy Sullivan has described values more as a “threshold issue” for many religious voters. That is, many religious voters won’t identify same sex marriage or abortion as top voting priorities, but candidates need to demonstrate a level of resepect for religion and cultural values in order for those voters to be open to supporting them. It seems like Obama’s religious outreach, and most Democratic religious outreach since 2004, has aimed to pass this threshold test.

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Paul Shiras

posted May 8, 2008 at 3:58 pm

Joshua DeBois is speaking not only for the majority of Catholics in America, but also for a great many of the Mainstream Non-Catholics. We care for the Nation and its people before we care about Dogma of our Faiths. Clinton and Obama have reached out to us, to connect with us. Reagan, Kennedy and Ike did this with out using Religion as a tool. Because of this they where elected. Because of this they drew in people of all Faiths.
The Religious Right likes to think they Elected Reagan, but they only helped, Mainstream America loved him and he was called the Great Orator by his own strengths, not because of the Moral Majority.
McClain may have the support of some of the Moral Right but not all and he will be elected only if he can appeal to the majority of the mainstream. Right now Clinton and Obama are doing a better job at that.

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