The Democratic Party is courting Catholics and other believers in a frantic effort to recapture the White House, reports John Allen With the 2008 election cycle in the United States already well underway, a burning question-mark hovers over the Democratic Party in its attempt to build on its 2006 success in Congress and to recapture the White House: can it "get" religion?
Putting things that way reflects the unique religious sociology of the United States among developed nations, marking one of the most fundamental faultlines between American politics and contemporary Europe. According to a 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey while just 33 per cent of the population of Great Britain, for example, rates religion as "very important" in their lives, and 14 per cent in France, a commanding 59 per cent of Americans do so. An even higher number of Americans, 68 per cent, say it's important that their President has strong religious beliefs.
In that light, any candidate or party perceived as "irreligious" by Americans carries an enormous electoral disadvantage.
By most measures, that perception proved fatal to Senator John Kerry's bid for the White House in 2004. Raised a Catholic, Kerry seemed to many Americans the embodiment of elite East Coast secularism, and on the rare occasions when he tried to speak the language of religion, it often sounded stilted and artificial. One thinks, for example. of his ill-fated reference to James 2:20, "Faith without works is dead", during a presidential debate when asked about his support for abortion rights and the opposition it aroused from some Catholic bishops. Polling showed that many Americans took it as a glib way of dodging the question rather than a sincere statement of faith.
Some analysts believe that practising Catholics made the difference for President George Bush in 2004. Bush won the Catholic vote overall, with 52 per cent, but captured an even higher number of Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, winning 56 per cent. It was a surprisingly strong showing, given that Catholics have historically been part of the blue-collar ethnic alliance of the Democratic Party. In part, the result reflected an aggressive effort on the part of Republicans to court Catholic voters, including three trips by Bush to visit Pope John Paul H during his first term. More basically, Republican gains among Catholics reflect the fact that on critical issues of human life, especially abortion, the Republicans have become the "pro-life" party.
To be sure, not everyone is convinced that the Catholic vote playe.41 such a decisive role. Matthew Streb, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University, studied the post-election data carefully and concluded that the idea of a distinctive "Catholic vote" is a myth.
Today, Streb says, Catholics are evenly divided like the rest of the country, but that's not enough to make them a "swing vote." It's a bit like suggesting, he said, that left-handers are a swing vote because 40 per cent vote Democratic, 40 per cent Republican, and the rest are up for grabs. The point is that they don't vote that way because they're left-handed; they vote that way because they're liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between. The same thing, Streb argues, is true of most Catholics, who vote on the basis of their ideological outlook rather than their religious affiliation.
Be that as it may, there's no doubt that the Democrats have a generalised problem with religion. Overall. Bush captured 64 per cent of the vote among those who attend religious services at least once a week. Political scientists say today that religious affiliation is the greatest single predictor of voting behaviour in the United States, trumping race, class, and gender. Put bluntly, the more an American goes to church, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican.
Surveying the leading Democratic candidates in 2008 it's not yet clear whether this "religion gap" will still be a factor.
Though Hillary Clinton has taken pains to speak the language of faith and values, she still incarnates elite liberal secularism for many parts of the country, and no doubt her nomination would mobilise many religiously minded voters to support virtually anyone else. Illinois Senator Barack Marna, on the other hand, is a member of the United Church of Christ, and speaks passionately about the importance of his faith. Recently he addressed a gathering of evangelical pastors and church activists at the Saddleback Church in southern California, one of America's burgeoning mega-churches, and was surprisingly wen-received. Yet Obama supports abortion rights, a position sure to raise doubts with many religious voters, including Catholics. Likewise, North Carolina Senator John Edwards was raised in the Southern Baptist Church, is now a Methodist, and has a long track record of supporting a robust role for religion in public life. But , like Obama. Edwards supports abortion rights.
Still, the leading Republican candidate at the moment, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, also is pro-choice, so it's not clear that Americans will face a clear difference on abortion in 2008. Moreover, given the sharp anti-war mood in the coun try and the deep unpopularity of Bush's administration, the relative weight of "faith and values" issues may be diminished in favour of a more generalised desire for a fresh start.
Perhaps the deeper issue for the Democratic Party is not so much whether it could, or even should, nominate a pro-life candidate in 2008, but whether the party can at least make room for a pro-life constituency. In terms of religion, the real problem for the Democrats over the last several election cycles has not been so much particular candidates, but a perception that the party is in thrall to highly secularised special interest groups who are hostile to religion on principle. One moment above all crystallised that perception: the 1992 Democratic National Convention, when Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, a Catholic, was barred from addressing the convention because of his pro-life views. (In a more amusing episode, former Democratic presidential candidate and current Democratic National Committee head Howard Dean once told reporters that his favourite book in the New Testament is Job.) The question now is whether the party can convince religiously motivated Americans that it's turned over a new leaf. In the case of Catholics, the hope of the Democratic Party may lie in the states of Virginia and Pennsylvania, where two Catholic rising stars seem to offer evidence of a new pluralism in the party.
In Virginia, Governor Tim Kaine, 49, elected in 2005, is pro-life, anti-death penalty, and anti-gay marriage, as well as a member of "Democrats for Life", an advocacy group founded in 1999 to build a pro-life constituency within the Democratic Party. As a young man Kaine took a break from Harvard Law School to work in a Catholic mission in Honduras, and upon his return to the States he was an active member of St Elizabeth's parish in Richmond. Virginia, even singing in the choir for 14 years until he was elected mayor. He speaks about his Catholic faith openly, and says it's helped him politically. "People want to know you have a moral yardstick," Kaine said.
Inevitably, Kaine's performance in office hasn't satisfied every religious constituency. Despite declaring himself against the death penalty, for example, he's overseen three executions as governor. Despite saying he's personally against gay marriage, he also opposed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Moreover, he's announced that he will support Barack Obama in 2008, despite the Illinois senator's pro-choice views. Some shrug all this off as politics being the art of the possible, while critics see it as a troubling willingness to separate one's personal views from one's public responsibilities.
Nonetheless. Kaine's electoral success seems to indicate that being a prominent Democrat, and also deeply religious and profile, are no longer mutually exclusive.
Perhaps even more convincing proof of the point comes in Pennsylvania, where.Senator Bob Casey Jr, a Catholic, defeated incumbent Republican Rick Santorum, also a Catholic, in the 2006 election by 59 per cent to 41 per cent, the widest margin ever for a Democrat in Pennsylvania. Ironically, many leading national Democrats asked Casey to run and endorsed his bid because he's pro-life and religiously credible; it was some of the same people, and for the very same reasons, who had earlier blocked his father, Robert Casey, from speaking to the 1992 convention.
They wanted Casey to go up against Santorum because the latter is in some ways the Catholic lawmaker par excellence; he's prolife, anti-gay marriage, antistem cell research, and deeply committed to the role of religion in public affairs. To boot, Santorum, though not a member of Opus Dei, is a devotee of the group's founder, St Josemaria Escriva, and has spoken at Opus Dei congresses about faith and public policy. (Santorum memorably argued in a 2002 interview with the National Catholic Reporter that from a policy point of view, George Bush is the "first Catholic president of the United States.") Yet a majority of Catholics in Pennsylvania voted for Casey, in part because on the life issues there's little difference between the two men.
Casey is anti-abortion, opposed to same-sex marriage, and opposed to embryonic stem-cell research. In general, however, Casey is perceived as a political moderate, while Santorum appeals more to the far Right — meaning that once abortion was off the table' as a wedge issue, Casey's potential electoral base was much broader than SantOrurn's, a reality reflected in the final result.
There are 77 million Catholics in the United States, and in most ways they're a microcosm of the broader American population. As Streb says, probably 40 per cent reliably vote Republican, not forgiving • the Democratic Party for what they see as its "betrayal" on issues of life and the family, while another 40 per cent almost always vote for Democrats, seeing their stands on social justice issues as better reflecting the Church's "preferential option" for the poor and vulnerable. But that leaves as many as 10 per cent of Catholic voters up for grabs, who are disproportionately represented in critical "swing states" such as New Mexico (41 per cent Catholic), Pennsylvania (29 per cent), Florida (27 per cent), Wisconsin (29 per cent), and New Hampshire (35 per cent). Many of those Catholics are attracted to the Democratic Party's positions on immigration, health—care, economic policy, and the war in Iraq, but have been turned off by a perception that the party is hostile to other concerns, especially human life at its earliest stages, and defence of the family. If the Democrats can soften those impressions, a significant number of non-aligned Catholics may be willing to move into their camp — especially in a year in which anti-incumbent sentiment is already running strong.
The fact that many Democratic strategists believe figures such as Tim Kaine and Bob Casey have national futures is one indication that something fundamental has shifted in the party. Some analysts go so far as to call it a "conversion", if not to religion, at least to the need to be respectful of religion — and that alone, many would say, marks a sea change in recent American politics. What electoral difference that will make, however, very much remains to be seen.
John Allen is senior correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter and author of The Rise of Benedict XVI (Penguin)