Catholic conundrum: Conservatives like Obama

Sebelius.jpgObama’s choice of Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius to be HHS secretary was long-rumored after Tom Daschle’s withdrawal. But now that it’s a fact it is likely to set off another round of the Catholic Culture Wars, since Sebelius is a practicing Catholic (as best she can, I suppose, as her archbishop barred her from communion) and supports abortion rights.

National Catholic Reporter has an article on 26 prominent Catholics who have signed a letter in support of Sebelius, pointing to her support for universal health care (where she has serious chops) and her “successful efforts at reducing abortion in Kansas.” The signatories note that abortions in Kansas declined by 10 percent during her time as governor. Among other things, Sebelius:


–Signed the Senator Stan Clark Pregnancy Maintenance Initiative Program, a bill which funded support services for pregnant women and alternatives to abortion;

–Signed Alexa’s Law, to deal with certain crimes against unborn children, which defines an unborn child as a fetus at any state of gestation from fertilization to birth. As a result, if a pregnant woman was murdered, the offender could be charged with the murder of the unborn child as well;

–Signed a law doubling the adoption tax credit and oversaw an expansion of adoption support spending in Kansas from $17,566,288 in 2003 to a projected $23,279,623 in 2008;

–And oversaw a decline in teen pregnancies between 2002 and 2007.


So what’s not to like? Well, Bill Donohue at the Catholic League finds plenty. His statement is likely representative of many pro-life groups: “As I said last night on the CBS Evening News, ‘She is the champion of abortion rights right through term, and for Obama to choose somebody who sews such division within the Catholic community to head HHS really is an insult to Catholics.’ ”

Donohue says of Obama and the Catholic vote: the Sebelius pick “will cost him.” But will it?

John Green’s article on the 2008 vote in the March First Things, “What Happened to the Values Voter?” includes the surprising revelation (to me) that Obama “did better with the Traditionalists than with the Centrist Catholics [Green’s longstanding labels, which of course have other unfortunate resonances intra ecclesia] and markedly better than Kerry’s one-fifth in 2004.”


“This result is a surprise,” Green writes, “being the only instance where a group of Traditionalists voted more Democratic than their Centrist coreligionists” in other faith groups.

That’s weird. Green suspects that conservative Catholic opposition to the Iraq War and torture and such may have been factors, and notes that “Centrist” Catholics can be more conservative economically. That doesn’t seem sufficient to explain this puzzle, to me, and I think Mark Silk’s analysis may be more on target:

Let me offer, instead, the hypothesis that the swing towards Obama among Traditionalist Catholics had less to do with the circumstances of the 2008 election than with their antipathy to voting for a pro-choice Catholic in 2004. In fact, this voting bloc swung heavily away from the Democratic candidate (to the tune of 17 points) between 2000 and 2004. So in November they more or less reverted to their 2000 voting pattern.


If I’m right and Traditionalist Catholics have more of a problem voting for a pro-choice Catholic than a pro-choice non-Catholic, that’s both good and bad news for conservative Catholic hierarchs and intellectuals. On the one hand, it suggests that the message that Catholic politicians should be pro-life (delivered delicately if unmistakably by the pope to Speaker Pelosi yesterday) has definitely gotten through to the old-time faithful. On the other, it indicates that such Catholics understand this to be less a natural law injunction incumbent on all members of society than a religious obligation for their own kind. That a staunch pro-choicer like Obama can garner two out of every five Traditionalist White Catholic votes helps makes sense of the high pro-life anxiety that seems to have taken hold in so many episcopal breasts.


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Reaganite in NYC

posted March 2, 2009 at 3:23 pm

David Gibson,
You’ve folded two separate issues (Sebelius’s support by some front group; and John Green analysis of Trad Catholic voting patterns) into one entry. You make it hard to sort them out.
I don’t think the endorsement of Sebelius by Kmiec or Cahill will do anything to reassure conservative Catholics.
As for Green’s analysis, it certainly deserves further study. However, are “Traditionalist” Catholics a significant voting bloc or a statistically significant part of the Catholic voting public in this country? I occasionally bump into a few of these folks, but even here in the NYC area their numbers are relatively small.

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posted March 2, 2009 at 4:40 pm

After speaking to many many people about who they voted for, and why, there is no doubt in my mind that the majority of people did not vote “for” Obama, they voted “against Bush.” No, Bush wasn’t running but the democrats effectivley linked McCain and Bush into being one in the same.
Not a single person I talked to, that voted for Obama, could tell me where he stood on various issues, they simply said we needed a “change.” These same people are questioning their vote now, they see how Obama is running up the deficit – far greater than Bush ever did – they see how is placing pro abortion people in control of everything and they see the country headed into the wrong direction and turning socialist.
I predict a major landslide for republicans in next years congressional elections – just like we had in 1994 with Gingrich and company.

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posted March 2, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Catholics can’t have it both ways. As a young man, I watched JFK campaign. He said again, “If I am elected, the pope will not run the government.” If people hadn’t have believed him, he would never have been elected. And except for a few limited places with very conservative constituencies, I think the same is true today. If Catholics hope to see people of their faith in office, they will have to let those people have their own opinions.
Most of us don’t want to see any church (Morman–Romney?, etc.) impose its policies through the government. We want our representatives to be people of faith, but not people who impose the will of their churches on government policy.

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posted March 2, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Donohue thinks the choice of Sebelius is an insult to Catholics? So I guess choosing the best person for a job, who just happens to be Catholic is wrong? It is fortunate that a person chosen by the President for a job in the White House isn’t removed from consideration because of their religion! Sebelius has been chosen because of her ability to do the job. Her track record on reduction of abortions seems to contradict the objections of some RCC folks. It seems that some Catholics do support her. So I guess Donohue doesn’t speak for all the RCC folks. Nice to see a difference of opinion on something in the RCC.

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Reaganite in NYC

posted March 3, 2009 at 12:39 am

Some of Sebelius’ supporters make the phony claim that she is pro-life because the abortion rate went down in Kansas while she’s been Governor.
And, yet, beliefnet’s editor-in-chief Steven Waldman points out:
“Here’s the rub: abortion rates seem to be most influenced by economic factors. Abortions go up during hard economic time. That means the number of abortions will likely go up under Obama. If Democrats set up abortion reduction as the standard, what will they say if the numbers go up under Obama?”
Can Sebelius really keep a straight face while trying to take credit for a reduction in abortions in Kansas? Can anyone else?

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Your Name

posted March 3, 2009 at 9:20 am

ALL practicing Catholics believe in ONE, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The ONE, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church believes that Human Life begins at Conception. One can not be a practicing Catholic and be pro-choice.

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posted March 3, 2009 at 2:46 pm

“The ONE, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church believes that Human Life begins at Conception. One can not be a practicing Catholic and be pro-choice.”
Can one be a practicing member of the ONE Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and be a pedophile? Apparently so.
I guess abortion supporters are to be shunned, but pedophiles are to be promoted to positions of power an influence.

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Your Name

posted March 4, 2009 at 10:45 pm

MarcM, the fact that there are some who have brought scandal to the Catholic Church, does not change the fact, that in order to be a practicing Catholic, one has to believe what the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church believes or one is not practicing the Catholic Faith.

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