Cover story -- Election: News Analysis
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Issue Date:  November 12, 2004

Moral values largest single issue cited by electorate

'Faithful Catholics' want results this time


On Election Day former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Thomas Melady worked the phones from Republican National Committee headquarters in southeast Washington. His job was to call 150 Ohio Republicans and encourage them to go to the polls. “George Bush stands for things I believe in,” was a frequent response of the 141 Ohioans Melady ultimately reached that day.

“I was surprised that I only got three negative responses,” said Melady. “I thought we’d hear a lot more about Iraq.”

In fact, as Melady’s experience demonstrated, the war on Iraq ended up far down the list of voter concerns. Surprisingly to some (including a good number of social conservatives) 21 percent of voters cited “moral values” as the number “one issue [that] mattered most in deciding” how they voted, according to a Washington Post survey of the national electorate. That’s higher than the 20 percent who cited the economy, the 18 percent who mentioned terrorism, or the 15 percent who pointed to the war in Iraq. And, significantly, of those who made moral values a priority, 78 percent voted for Bush.

Similar surveys by USA Today and CNN arrived at like numbers.

However surprising, the large turnout of those who put opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage at the top of their political priority list was no accident. It was a plan.

“If you look at the model of the electorate,” presidential political adviser Karl Rove told a December 2001 American Enterprise Institute gathering, “and you look at the model of who voted [in the 2000 presidential election], the big discrepancy is among self-identified, white, evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals and fundamentalists. .... There should have been 19 million of them, and instead there were 15 million of them.” A key element of the Bush strategy was to combine increased turnout among these religious conservatives with support from Catholics, particularly those the Bush camp defined as “faithful Catholics,” meaning those who attend Mass weekly.

The plan worked.

Higher voter turnout, traditionally thought to aid Democrats, instead redounded to the president’s benefit, especially because conservative faith-based voters did not stay home this time. The 42 percent of voters of all denominations who say they attend church at least weekly gave Bush about 60 percent of their vote. Fifty-six percent of self-identified weekly Mass attendees (about 11 percent of the total electorate) supported the president, who edged Kerry by a slight margin in the overall Catholic vote.

In Ohio, bolstered by one of 11 successful statewide referendums declaring marriage be reserved to a man and a woman, Bush won 55 percent of the overall Catholic vote and nearly two-thirds of the “faithful Catholic” vote.

In an election many thought would be determined by the economy, or fear of terrorism, or the war in Iraq, values were a trump card. Bottom line: “Cultural issues matter,” said George Marlin, author of The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact.

The Kerry camp was not oblivious to the impact of values voters. In fact, in the closing weeks of the campaign the candidate who previously explained to the Democratic convention that he didn’t wear his faith on his sleeve was wrapped in religious imagery. Sunday after Sunday in the closing weeks found Kerry at African-American churches, quoting the Epistle of James on the need to match faith with action.

His most direct appeal to Catholic voters came late, on Oct. 24 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Kerry spoke of the “common good” where “individual rights and freedoms are connected to our responsibility to others.” He mentioned “stewardship and community,” “solidarity” and the “ethical test of a good society.” He addressed the faith that has “sustained me in the best and worst of times, and that I will carry with me every day as president.”

And he spoke directly to abortion and embryonic stem cell research -- two issues where Kerry’s religion and his politics part company.

“I know there are some bishops who have suggested that as a public official I must cast votes or take public positions -- on issues like a woman’s right to choose and stem cell research -- that carry out the tenets of the Catholic church,” said Kerry. “I love my church, I respect the bishops, but I respectfully disagree.

“My task, as I see it, is not to write every doctrine into law. That is not possible or right in a pluralistic society. But my faith does give me values to live by and apply to the decision I make,” said Kerry.

Was “respectful disagreement” with the bishops a smart political strategy?

“It’s certainly necessary politics in this instance,” Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry told members of the religious press Oct. 25. “There are many Catholics who themselves feel conflicted [about abortion and embryonic stem cell research] and probably share Senator Kerry’s ambivalence,” said McCurry.

Not enough, as it turned out.

“It took John Kerry a long time” to formulate the religious language that animated his campaign in the final weeks, said David O’Brien, professor of history at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. And Kerry came to the task at a disadvantage. “The Democrats were vulnerable because they have tended to make light of some of these questions rather than responding in a respectful tone, and that fed certain negative perceptions of Kerry.”

Those negative perceptions were, at least in part, shaped by the leaders of Kerry’s church. Over the past year, in pastoral letters, newspaper columns and press interviews, dozens of American bishops either implicitly or explicity condemned Kerry for his pro-abortion-rights, pro-embryonic stem cell research positions. The question of denying Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians took center stage in the secular press. In the campaign’s closing days The New York Times published two stories in as many days on a quixotic effort to excommunicate Kerry. And the notion crept into the popular culture. “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart deemed the Communion controversy “Wafer Madness.”

Several bishops, meanwhile, suggested that a vote for Kerry was a sin.

The victory of the pro-choice Catholic presidential candidate would likely have reignited the Communion controversy. As it stands now, the bishops will hear this month from the task force they established last year to help them wade through the issues related to Catholics in public life. That conversation is sure to be heated, though likely calmer than it would have been if Kerry were headed to the Oval Office.

Will the 40 or so American bishops identified by conservative Catholic groups as their chief allies within the U.S. hierarchy be emboldened by the Bush victory? A vindication of their hardball approach?

“That’s the real worry,” says Holy Cross’ O’Brien. “The agenda they have is a new seamless garment that doesn’t include war or poverty” and the election could very well strengthen that approach within the bishops’ conference. O’Brien sees the possibility of a new conference paradigm, where the demands placed on the laity in areas of war or economics remain subject to individual conscience, while on abortion, marriage and embryonic stem cell research, the bishops require “direct action” by legislators.

He points to the situation in his home diocese of Worchester, where the diocesan justice and peace office, he said, is unstaffed. Instead, the diocese’s political involvement is managed through the pro-life office, which, says O’Brien, risks “narrowing the church’s social agenda.”

One conservative church activist pointed to the example of Arlington, Va., Bishop Paul Loverde who, in an Oct. 31 pastoral letter, declared, “No Catholic can claim to be a faithful member of the church while advocating for, or actively supporting, direct attacks on innocent human life.” Loverde, said the conservative activist, “would not have done that in years past, but now he recognizes that there is some running room there. These [conservative bishops] are finding succor among themselves.”

And there may be additional fallout from the election.

“It is worth noting as we think about the future of the public church in the United States, that at a time when a Catholic candidate for president was systematically misrepresenting the teaching of the church on the life issues … it was individual bishops, not the [bishops’] conference, who clarified this,” said George Weigel, papal biographer and Ethics and Public Policy Center senior fellow. “If the conference doesn’t exist to clarify church teaching in the public order then what does it exist for?” Weigel asked.

Weigel termed the collective efforts of the bishops this year -- through the issuance of “Faithful Citizenship,” their guide to Catholics on responsible citizenship in an election year -- “a last gasp effort to hold onto the tattered seamless garment.” Said Weigel: “We now know, because Kerry has demonstrated it, that the seamless garment metaphor, whatever truths it embodies within it, becomes in the hands of politicians an excuse [to oppose church teaching on life issues]. Why are we trying to stitch the thing together again?”

On a broader level, said Weigel, it is now time for the values voters to demand results for their support. “The days of the tacit embrace [by Republicans] of these issues, then really not doing a whole lot about them, particularly on the marriage question, are over,” said Weigel. The values vote “is a real message to the Republican Party that it now has to deliver on the life issues and the marriage question for what is manifestly its base, its majority in the country. They need to keep faith with their constituents and complete the signal to the imperial judiciary that was sent electorally” in the presidential election, said Weigel.

“Faithful Catholics really delivered for President Bush and now we’ll be asking him to deliver for faithful Catholics,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Washington-based Culture of Life Foundation and Institute. First priority: federal judgeships and, given the illness of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, potential openings on the Supreme Court. While Bush dodged the question of litmus tests for judicial appointments at the second presidential debate, Ruse is under no such constraints. “We are looking for judges,” he said, “who will be pro-life judges.”

In 2000, writer and moral theologian Sydney Callahan supported George W. Bush, citing his opposition to abortion. This year, however, she endorsed John Kerry and participated in radio spots funded by Catholics for Political Responsibility. Those advertisements noted that Bush had “disappointed” progressive pro-life Catholics “on all life issues -- war, poverty, health care and abortion.”

On the morning following the election, Callahan suggested, “What we have to do is work issue by issue instead of thinking about the political parties.” Further, she said, given the antiabortion vote in the election it is conceivable “that the Democrats would think again about their doctrinaire pro-choice ideology.”

Yet, she could not be termed optimistic.

“I guess we’re going to live in a divided country just like we live in a divided church,” said Callahan.

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

International reactions to the Bush victory

“The United States will again have a president who provokes international divisions.” -- Robin Cook, former foreign minister of England, who resigned from the House of Commons in protest over the Iraq war

“I’m happy that Bush will continue with a policy that assigns the United States the role of defender and promoter of freedom and democracy.” -- Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister of Italy

“One hopes for a new stage” in ties between Europe and the United States, “now that Europe is reaching institutional maturity and U.S.-European relations have reached a key moment. It’s important to try to reestablish American trust in the European project, because the Americans cannot hope to construct, direct and animate the world by themselves.” -- Michel Barnier, foreign minister of France

“Although Bush has committed crimes against humanity with his war lacking international legitimacy, Kerry would not have been less partial with respect to Israel.” -- Nafed Azzam, spokesperson for the Palestinian group Al Jihad, speaking on Algerian Radio

“Afghan people like ... [Bush] because he chased the Taliban out of our country. Who is the other candidate? We don’t know anything about him.” -- Kabul cabbie Ali Amiri

“He’s content.” -- Spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, asked for a reaction to Bush’s reelection

“In America, the issues that elected Bush can be expressed in terms of four G’s: God, gays, guns and grizzlies.” -- Il Messagero, Italian daily newspaper

“In my opinion, international terrorists ... [aimed] at hampering Bush’s reelection. And the appearance of bin Laden at the final stage of the election campaign in the USA is the best confirmation of this statement. I’ve known Bush for four years, and I know him as a consistent, decent man.” -- Vladimir Putin, president of Russia

“There is going to be more Arab blood spilled everywhere because of Bush. No one in the Middle East is going to be safe.” -- Riad Bakri, a contractor in Beirut

Compiled from wire services and the international press.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2004

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