x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Catholics are a faithful reflection of outcome

The choice of American Catholics for president has been a faithful indicator of which candidate has won the popular vote in each contest since 1972.

WASHINGTON // The choice of American Catholics for president has been a faithful indicator of which candidate has won the popular vote in each contest since 1972. Catholics favoured the Democrat Al Gore over George W Bush in the 2000 presidential election by about three per cent. While Mr Bush won the electoral vote, Mr Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes. Catholics account for only one-quarter of the US population, but several of the critical battlegrounds - including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana - are also states where some of the largest populations of Catholics are concentrated, giving additional importance to the Catholic vote this election year. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, has also found success by opening up a new front against John McCain, the Republican nominee, in such traditionally Republican-supporting states as Nevada and Colorado, through high levels of backing from the large numbers of Hispanic Catholics in the region, many of whom are recent immigrants. Hispanics comprise nearly a third of Catholics in the United States. They surpassed African-Americans as the largest minority group in the country and could potentially represent the newest immigrant and largely Catholic base for the Democratic Party in elections to come. Support for the Democratic Party among Catholic immigrants is nothing new in American history. When Irish immigrants arrived on America's eastern seaboard in the middle of the 19th century, they formed urban political coalitions that became bulwarks of support for the Democratic Party. John F Kennedy, America's first and only Catholic president, emerged from such a political machine in Boston. But as many Catholics shed their immigrant and working class identities over the course of the 20th century, and abortion was made legal in the United States as a result of the 1973 Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision, Catholic support for Democrats became less reliable. Most Democratic politicians, including Mr Obama, favour upholding Roe vs Wade, while Mr McCain supports more restrictions on abortion. Since the 1970s,"educated suburban Catholics, like their neighbours, were voting more often for Republican candidates and registering as Republicans or, more frequently, as independents", wrote Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh, religion scholars, in the Nov 3 edition of America, the national Catholic weekly. "In many places, especially in the Midwest, even working class Catholic voters could be swayed; and they moved to support Republican presidential candidates like Ronald Reagan. Catholics were plentiful in leadership ranks of the Republican ascendancy that established itself in the 1980s and 1990s." In spite of his abortion stance and the recent trend in their voting patterns, Mr Obama appears poised to win a resounding victory among Catholics, holding a nearly two-to-one advantage, according to the latest New York Times poll. Mr Obama's success with Catholic voters endures even as 50 of the 197 American Catholic bishops have issued statements in their dioceses describing abortion as the decisive issue of the election. Bishop Robert Hermann, in the critical battleground state of Missouri, wrote in St Louis last week: "The issue of life is the most basic issue and must be given priority over the issue of the economy, the issue of war or any other issue." Similar anti-abortion pronouncements from the clergy helped George W Bush win a majority of the Catholic vote in 2004 despite the fact that his opponent, John Kerry, was a Catholic. But as the economy falters and two wars drag on in Iraq and Afghanistan, social issues appear to be playing far less of a role in determining how Catholics will vote on election day than they did four years ago. John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, explained in an online interview conducted by the research centre why Mr Obama, a Protestant, might do better among Catholics than Mr Kerry did: "Obama talks much more comfortably about his faith than Kerry did during the 2004 campaign. And Obama talks about it in a way that connects in a fairly straightforward fashion to Catholic social teachings on economic issues. And if one adds other issues that Obama has championed, such as opposition to the war in Iraq, there are a number of key points that white Catholics might find very cogent on religious grounds." Even among the Catholic hierarchy, where opposition to abortion is vehement and universal, several bishops have expressed sympathy for the way many voters may be considering a variety of issues in this election. "We cannot be a one-issue people. If our conscience is well formed, then we will make the right choices about candidates who may not support the church's position in every case," wrote Bishop Terry Steib, of Memphis, Tennessee. Only 29 per cent of American Catholics indicated that abortion would determine how they would vote in the presidential election, according to a recent poll by Zogby International. But as the stock market has crashed and the economy has stalled, it is not only new immigrants who are feeling the pinch and advocating a change to the economic order, said Brother Matthew Nylund, a Catholic monk and educator in Washington, DC. "Ordinary working class people, rising up to defend their interests have often stood in contrast to the philosophy that people have to go their own way - the frontier spirit - that has energised the Republican Party. Obama may have stoked the embers of community among Catholics that many people thought had been put out." Mr Green, of the Pew Forum, added another point. "A final difference between 2004 and 2008 may be the more intensive campaigning within the Catholic community on behalf of Obama," he said in the online interview. "The revival of a religious Left in national politics has been an important feature of the 2008 campaign." pgranfield@thenational.ae