As political commentators continue to sift through the election exit polls, some exuberant abortion proponents have come to a curious conclusion: Barack Obama's triumph among Catholic voters was a validation of the president-elect's abortion position.
Writing at the Huffington Post recently, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards interpreted Obama's 9-point win over John McCain (54-45%) among the 27% of the electorate who call themselves Catholic to be a consequence of Obama's "commonsense agenda" on abortion. Richards adds that Obama won Catholics "despite entreaties from Catholic leadership to vote against Senator Obama because of his support for abortion rights."
But Richards misinterprets the results. A closer look at Obama's relationship with Catholics reveals a narrow win that came about largely because Obama is not Catholic. In other words, in a presidential election in which the victor's "otherness" may have been a net benefit, among Catholics, it surely proved decisive.
First, Richards confuses correlation with causation. She declares that most Catholics support Barack Obama's "commonsense agenda" on reproductive health. But polling shows a majority of Catholics are pro-life. In fact, a Marist College poll found only 6 percent of Catholics agree with Obama that abortions should be legal at any time during pregnancy.
In addition, Obama's Catholic win is consistent with recent history. Catholics have voted for Democrats in four of the last five presidential elections, which indeed reflects a certain "crisis of faith" in the Church. But Obama's 54-45% margin was only slightly better than that enjoyed by 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore, who won Catholics 50-47.
It is easy to see why abortion advocates are excited about Obama's Catholic win: He improved upon 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry's share of the Catholic vote by 8 percentage points. But context matters. 2008 was a Democratic year in which race alone helped Obama win landslides with minority voters, who make up about one-third of the Catholic vote. (In fact, Obama lost white Catholics by five points.) Plus, values issues took a back seat to the economy in 2008, while 2004 offered a more pro-life Republican nominee who made Catholic outreach a cornerstone of his campaign. Given all this, Obama's eight-point Catholic win seems lackluster.
Moreover, given his pro-abortion views and voting record, Kerry's Catholicity, such as it was, became an important reason why he lost the Catholic vote in 2004. This year, Obama, at least as ardent an abortion supporter as Kerry, fared better among Catholics precisely because he is not Catholic.
Many Catholics revolted against Sen. Kerry for the same reason old school feminists so vehemently opposed gun-toting pro-life heroine Sarah Palin, and for the same reason many black politicians spoke out so forcefully against judicial and social conservative Clarence Thomas during his nomination to the Supreme Court. It's also why evangelicals abandoned the first evangelical president, Jimmy Carter, in 1980 to vote for Ronald Reagan.
Each of them, rightly or wrongly, was seen by some as treating with contempt the essence of his or her identity. In Kerry's case, Catholics saw an abortion-supporting presidential candidate shamelessly carrying a rosary on the campaign trail and telling reporters that he was once an altar boy. Because Kerry insisted he was "a believing and practicing Catholic" yet still supported abortion, Catholic bishops were compelled to have a public debate over denying Kerry communion and to adopt a strong statement entitled, "Catholics in Political Life," which stated that pro-choice lawmakers risk cooperating in evil. By Election Day, most Catholics were fully aware that, as the popular bumper sticker stated simply, "You Can't Be Catholic And Pro-Abortion."
Catholic pride at electing one of their own helped John Kennedy win the Catholic vote in 1960. But Catholic pride was also why a majority opposed Kerry in 2004. So while Kennedy almost lost his election in part because he was Catholic (JFK lost 5 million votes because of his Catholic faith, according to the National Election Study of the University of Michigan), Kerry lost his election in part because he was Catholic, but insufficiently so.
Both Kerry and Obama hold very liberal positions on abortion (though Obama's arguably is more extreme). And while both Kerry and Obama are Christian, only Kerry, as the Catholic, could be (and was) charged with heresy.
THAT OBAMA BENEFITED from lower standards from Catholics was exemplified in this year's Al Smith dinner, an annual Gala that raises money for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. The dinner is a pre-election tradition, and has included invitations to the presidential candidates every four years since 1952 -- except for 1996 and 2004. In 1996, Cardinal Egan was reportedly upset at Bill Clinton's veto of the partial birth abortion legislation, so the vice-presidential nominees attended instead. In 2004, neither President Bush nor Kerry received invitations even though Kerry was the first major party Catholic presidential nominee since 1960. Kerry was not invited at least in part because he was a pro-choice Catholic.
This year, both McCain and Obama were invited and attended. And though the sight of a Catholic cardinal laughing it up with a political candidate who defies the Church's most fundamental moral principles was unsettling, it was clear that Obama's not being Catholic made his abortion extremism slightly more tolerable for the dinner's organizers.
The same rationale was embraced by a majority of Catholic voters. Catholics believe that all persons are obliged to respect human life from conception until natural death. But, as both Obama's win and Kerry's loss among Catholics prove, many hold to a higher standard public officials who profess Catholicism, and resent those who do so while taking stands contrary to church teaching.
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