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McCain, Obama, & the Catholic Vote

Which one is a natural?

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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While a number of Catholics have been waxing rhapsodic about Barack Obama's appeal, it seems to have gone unnoticed that John McCain is running on an astonishingly Catholic platform. Nearly every time he ventures off the conservative plantation, he moves in the direction of liberal Catholic politics. Could this translate into votes in the fall?

Despite the enthusiasm of his Catholic fans, Obama consistently ran behind Hillary Clinton among Catholic Democrats. Just 30 percent voted for him in Pennsylvania, for instance, even with the backing of the state's premier pro-life Democrat, Senator Bob Casey Jr. According to one of Obama's Catholic advisers, Notre Dame professor Cathy Kaveny, Obama "has been slowly but steadily gaining ground among Catholics, as they come to see who he is and what he stands for." She argues that many Catholic voters will respond "to his vision of the common good"--in particular "ending the unjust war in Iraq, providing decent jobs, ensuring affordable health care for all, and working for comprehensive immigration reform." Earlier this spring, Doug Kmiec, a pro-life Catholic who served under Reagan and George H.W. Bush and was a Romney adviser, said, "Sorry, McCain," but "Barack Obama is a natural for the Catholic vote."

Yet Obama's troubles winning actual Catholic voters in the Democratic primaries suggest he might have problems in the general election--unsurprising, perhaps, given what Nat Hentoff has described as Obama's "extremism" on the abortion issue. Obama has opposed every effort to protect unborn human life, including the Supreme Court's upholding of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Obama even voted against an anti-infanticide bill to protect the lives of babies who survive an abortion and are born alive. Though he claims to be against same-sex marriage, he announced that he "respects the decision of the California Supreme Court" decreeing same-sex marriage for that state. Meanwhile, his statements on the judiciary make it clear that his judges will not be in the mold of Roberts and Alito (he voted against both in their Senate confirmation hearings).

The contrast with McCain is stark. And yet McCain has had his own Catholic problems. Rick Santorum, the posterboy for conservative Catholic causes, argued during the primaries that McCain was no social conservative. Though Santorum later endorsed McCain ("With the exception of embryonic stem-cell funding, he always voted for life and stood for the culture of life"), there is still some nervousness among social-issues voters. McCain's widely reported speech on May 15, in which he laid out hopes for his first term, for example, contained no mention of abortion or marriage. But McCain has come out in favor of the California state marriage amendment, and the judges he'd appoint to the Supreme Court wouldn't impose same-sex marriage on the nation nor strike down restrictions on abortion.

If at the end of the day Obama and McCain more or less fit into the standard political alignments for the left and right on the standard social issues, where will the debate go on the new moral wedges? Consider the issues liberal Catholics have recently championed in opposition to conservative politicians: the war, torture, immigration, and the environment.

For Obama-supporting Catholics, the Iraq war is a huge wedge issue. "On the war and torture," Catholics United's Chris Korzen opined, "McCain is not on the side of Catholic theology." In the lead up to Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States, many liberal Catholics were predicting a big showdown in which Benedict would lecture Bush and urge him to withdraw American troops.

But this isn't the current thinking of the Church. While it's true that many in Rome opposed the invasion, the Church never declared the war unjust. Catholic soldiers serve in it, and Catholic politicians vote to fund the effort. More important, the current thinking of Rome is that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be the height of moral irresponsibility. This may explain why liberal Catholics didn't get their hoped-for antiwar soundbite during the pope's recent visit. Catholics who argue that the Iraq war is unjust are living in 2003. On the question of what to do now, nothing in Catholic teaching suggests that Obama's plan to pull out is morally compelling.

The questions of support for the war, the troops, and patriotism may well end up cutting in McCain's favor, not Obama's. Though American Catholics are committed to a universal church that teaches universal values, they also remain remarkably committed to their nation; patriotism and support for national service run high. This might explain part of the Pennsylvania result: Blue-collar Catholic Democrats didn't warm up to the perceived elitism of Barack Obama or the anti-Americanism of Jeremiah Wright, his then-pastor.

If Iraq doesn't work as a Catholic wedge, what about other issues? Here, McCain's defections from talk-radio conservatism are in directions that should be appealing to liberal Catholics. McCain is an outspoken opponent of torture, including waterboarding. He called for comprehensive immigration reform in terms strikingly aligned with the U.S. Catholic bishops' recommendations. This could appeal to Hispanic Catholics, especially when combined with his pro-life views and his support for the California marriage amendment. And McCain has long been beating the drums for a response to global warming.

Regardless of the merits of McCain's positions on these issues--and they have certainly angered many conservatives--they make awkward many of the talking points favored by left-leaning religious commentators. If the war, torture, immigration, and climate change are the pressing moral issues of the day, will they be able to attack McCain?

Well, yes, they can--but it will be more difficult. And of course, this leaves aside poverty, education, health care, and a host of other domestic social welfare programs. Kaveny has argued that Catholics would warm to Obama for "providing decent jobs" and "ensuring affordable health care for all." But the truth is that Obama and McCain have not brought much that is new to the perennial debate about the role of the state and the market in best serving the common good, particularly the poor. Both argue that their policies are intended to help the downtrodden, and it would be a low charge to claim that either is disingenuous on this score.

The Catholic church doesn't claim to have the expertise to answer the largely technical question of how best to achieve such ends as remediating poverty and providing health care. But judging by the moral standards articulated in Pope John Paul II's social teaching encyclical Centesimus Annus, one could make the case that McCain's proposals are more consistent than Obama's with the Catholic social ideals of subsidiarity, solidarity, and human dignity.

Of course, Catholic teaching and Catholic voting do not always go hand in hand. Conservative Catholics will continue to attack Obama on abortion, embryo destruction, cloning, same-sex marriage, and the judiciary--while liberal Catholics will continue to attack McCain on the war, torture, immigration, and climate change. Against such attacks, McCain appears to have a defense. Does Obama?

Ryan T. Anderson, an assistant editor at First Things, is a Phillips Foundation fellow and assistant director of the Program in Bioethics at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J.