Freddy Gray's American Diary
Remember Barack Obama's Catholic problem? How could Catholic middle American support the most pro-abortion major party presidential candidate of all time? They certainly resisted him in the Democratic primaries earlier this year: Hillary Clinton repeatedly exposed her rival's unpopularity among blue-collarish Catholics in key swing states such as California, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Given that no politician since Dwight D Eisenhower has reached the White House without the Catholic vote, Obama's inability to woo the faithful seemed to represent an insurmountable electoral obstacle.
Not anymore. According to a Pew Research Center poll published in October. the Democratic nominee leads John McCain among,Catholics 55 per cent to 35 per cent. A Washington Post survey was less favourable for
Obama, showing that Catholics were evenly divided between the candidates. The point stands, though: with just a few days left before the election, self-described Catholics have warmed to Obama.
The reason for this shift is obvious: it's the economy, stupid. Americans want to express their exasperation and horror at the financial crisis by giving the Republican party a good kicking at the ballot. And with some parts of America already suffering from a severe recession, Obama's overtly Christian message of social justice is working no matter how many times McCain calls it "un-American". The sad truth is that "values voters" change priorities when their bank balances are threatened, regardless of whether bishops try to keep abortion at the top of the political agenda.
Economic factors do not, however, entirely explain the Democratic Party's resurgence among Catholics. In recent months Obama has subtly softened though not changed his prochoice position. In television appearances he has spoken not of a woman's right to choose, but of the need to reduce abortions. He has had to tread carefully, of course, so as not to distress the fiercely pro-abortion liberal establishment. But unlike John Kerry, the Democratic Catholic yet religiously tone-deaf 2004 Democratic nominee, Obama can talk about God without sounding completely phony, The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. had the same knack at least at first.
Obama's campaign even splashed out on a Faith, Family and Values tour to reach out to Catholics and moderate Protestants. The programme included speakers such as former congressman Tim Roe and former Reagan official Doug Kmiec, both prolife Catholics. Kmiec, the author of Can a Catholic Support Him?: Asking the Big Questions about Barack Obama, actually argues that the number of abortions would be lower under President Obama. Be writes: "Barack Obama's strengthening of support for prenatal care, health care, maternity leave, and adoption will make the difference." The Faith tour's slogan, "vote ALL our values", is an obvious ploy to counter "singleissue" ie, anti-abortion votes. After all, Catholics tend to agree with the Democratic platform on a wide range of subjects: tackling poverty. ending the occupation of Iraq, emphasising parental responsibility, and more.
The number of Christian converts to Obama is easily exaggerated, however. Obama's proven opposition to unborn life, including the notorious vote in favour of partial-birth abortion, is too shocking for many believers to dismiss. As Steven Waldman, the editor of www.beliefnet.com, puts it: "Catholics and evangelicals agree with Barack Obama on 80 per cent of issues, but the thing that's holding them up is they think he's an extremist on abortion."
Moreover, with South Dakota reportedly close to passing a state law to ban abortion a measure that could force the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe vs Wade the pro-life cause is back in the news. Perhaps the McCain campaign will seize on this development to emphasise its avowed support for the unborn and win back the faithful majority. Then again, many Catholics might be too worried about the collapsing stock market to notice.