The furious division in Catholicism over abortion and the presidential election grows wider. But to what end? A front-page story in today’s New York Times is titled, “Abortion Issue Again Dividing Catholic Votes,” and yet evidence of how that is happening is scant, and evidence that abortion could even be masking issues of race (and other matters) is front and center in Scranton, where David Kirkpatrick reported the piece:

One parishioner ruled out voting for Mr. Obama explicitly because he is black. “Are they going to make it the Black House?” Ray McCormick asked, to embarrassed hushing from a half dozen others gathered around the rectory kitchen. (Five of the six, all lifelong Democrats who supported Mrs. Clinton in the primary, said they now lean toward Mr. McCain.) Mr. Madonna, the political scientist, said of the Catholic vote in white, working-class Scranton, “This is a tough area for Obama and some of it is race.”

The McCain camp and its allies are ramping up inflammatory charges of “infanticide” against Obama because of his votes on a bill in the Illinois legislature that supporters said would give protections to babies born alive during a botched abortion. It’s a tangle, and Obama has dissembled on his record on the legislation. But none of that come closing to supporting the charges against him. Steve Waldman has more, including an excerpt on the topic from Doug Kmiec’s forthcoming book on how a conservative, pro-life Catholic can support Obama. Steve also has Kmiec’s painful account of the day he was denied communion (and publicly humiliated before a large gathering) for supporting Obama.

Mark Silk at Spiritual Politics calls the idea that abortion is THE issue a “fairy tale”–one recently re-told by Peter Boyer in a New Yorker piece on McCain and the religious right. “Careful targeting of traditionalist Catholics had, relative to the rest of electorate, less than zero effect,” Silk writes of the 2004 vote. And as Silk notes here:

In a recent study of the political behavior of white Catholics–that crucial swing voting bloc–University of Cincinnati political scientist Stephen Mockabee performs the magic of multivariate factor analysis (in the 2007 volume, From Pews to Polling Places, edited by J. Matthew Wilson) and discovers that, in fact, abortion had no statistically significant effect on Catholic presidential vote choice in 2004. That’s right, none. How could this be? Well, one way to help understand it is that while older white Catholics are much more pro-life than younger ones, they are also far more loyal Democratic voters. “Post Vatican II” Catholics–those born after 1960–trend Republican but only seven percent share their Church’s position on abortion. When it came to issues, what pushed white Catholics toward George Bush was their support for capital punishment and their opposition to gay marriage, not John Kerry’s pro-choice position.

Also, Boyer’s article was obsolete as soon as it was printed, because it came out just as Sarah Palin did. And Palin and her ability to galvanize social conservatives is the true wild card. But as Paul Moses points out at dotCommonweal, panelists at a Fordham conference last night on religion and politics (which I couldn’t make, unfortunately) reiterated that view:

Pew pollster Andrew Kohut said Pew’s next poll results will show John McCain moving ahead of Barack Obama in the Catholic vote. But the biggest point I took away was that, as Kohut said, “There’s a tendency … to exaggerate the role religion has on voter behavior.” That was so in analyses of the 2004 presidential campaign, he said. And, he said, poll data show that abortion was even less important an issue to voters this year than it was four years ago – especially among people who are religious. As panelist E.J. Dionne said, there are just other issues on voters’ minds.

Gallup polls also show that abortion barely registers, and this Gallup analysis show that it cuts both ways–that just13 percent of voters, both abortion foes and abortion rights backers, said in May 2008 that “they vote only for candidates for major offices who share their views on abortion.”


Gallup abortion graphic.gifSo what are we getting out of all this “eye-for-an-eye” internecine fighting? A blind church. And one with a diminished voice in the public square on this and other issues.

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