The Magazine

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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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.