National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 4, 2004

Faith-based, pro-life left seeks political home


It’s a good bet that the vast majority of the 300-plus Christian social activists who gathered in Washington May 23-25 will vote for John Kerry in November. The signs were evident.

Bush spokesman Alfonso Jackson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was coolly greeted. His personal up-from-poverty story fell flat with an audience that viewed the administration’s domestic agenda as an abandonment of the federal government’s commitment to the poor.

His remarks concluded, Jackson darted for the door. An impertinent audience member jumped up. What is the Bush administration going to do for the young woman the audience member talked with the previous evening -- a full-time worker by day who prostitutes herself at night because she needs the money to feed and clothe her child?

The HUD secretary, halfway between the podium and the exit, responded. “The question you should ask is what can you do for her?” A collective groan from the audience ensued as Jackson quickly made his way to the hotel lobby.

Kerry stand-in Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., by contrast, got a standing ovation. Her harsh critique of the administration’s domestic agenda -- tax cuts aimed disproportionately at the wealthy, cuts in housing and Medicaid, deficits that starve the federal treasury, punitive welfare reform -- was just what the audience of church-based anti-poverty workers wanted to hear. The Bush administration, said DeLauro, “has transferred the nation’s tax burden from corporations and the wealthy to people who work for a living.”

But the “Call to Unity to Make Poverty Reduction a Religious and Electoral Issue” -- a three-day conference sponsored by Washington-based “Call to Renewal” -- exposed some fissures between the faith-based left and the Democratic Party.

The week prior to the Call to Unity meeting, DeLauro and 47 other Catholic House Democrats wrote Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, telling him that the growing movement to deny Communion to Catholic legislators who favor abortion-rights is “counterproductive and would bring great harm to the church.” The legislators asked to meet with McCarrick, who chairs a committee of bishops drafting guidance for members of the hierarchy in their dealings with Catholic politicians.

Following DeLauro’s prepared remarks, Tom Allio, diocesan social action director in Cleveland, stood before the microphone and thanked her for her efforts. “I believe you’re going to have a constructive dialogue” with McCarrick, said Allio. The Eucharist, he continued, should not be used as a “weapon” against Catholic legislators.

But then Allio asked the divisive question. Would DeLauro, chair of a committee working on the Democratic Party platform, “call for a dialogue with John Kerry on his … abortion-on-demand” position? The unborn, said Allio, represent society’s “most vulnerable” and abortion is a “fundamental human dignity issue.”

Call to Renewal convener Jim Wallis said many of those present, hostile to Republican antigovernment policies and Democratic intransigence on abortion, lacked “a natural political home.” Wallis is editor of Sojourners magazine and a long-time activist.

Pro-life Democrats, Wallis told NCR, are an “endangered species.” The Republican Party is “much less dismissive” of those -- such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani -- who dissent from the party’s general consensus on the issue. “The Democrats should be at least as ecumenical on abortion as the Republicans are,” said Wallis.

DeLauro, meanwhile, dodged Allio’s question. When it comes to abortion, she responded, legislators have an obligation to those they represent; she had recently re-read former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s 1984 speech on the subject; politicians should be reluctant to impose their deeply held personal beliefs on others; Democrats have “a great respect for the dignity of life” as evidenced by their positions on war, the death penalty, and social justice.

“I don’t feel at home in either party,” said Bill Murray, a 61-year-old Quaker from Durham, N.C. Republicans “give lip service to the abortion thing,” while Democrats “are a little less tied into the corporate culture” that dominates American culture and politics, he said. On the issues, said Murray, he’s most comfortable with Ralph Nader, but he won’t be voting for the independent candidate. Such a vote could help re-elect Bush, said Murray.

Political homelessness notwithstanding, he’ll be voting for Kerry.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 2004

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