Catholic Support for Obama Throws Catholic Bishops A Curve

Amie Newman

The Boston Globe reports that there must be a lot of disappointed Catholic bishops with the election of Barack Obama. But Catholic voters helped elect Obama, with a 54% majority, despite Obama's strong record on reproductive health and rights. And the Catholic far right has a plan.

Despite strong attempts by some religious leaders, fundamentalists and far right extremists pushing extreme ballot measures, to coerce Catholics into voting for Senator McCain solely for his anti-choice policy stance, the majority of Catholics opted for a more moderate religious compass and voted for Barack Obama.

54% of Catholics supported President-Elect Obama and his Catholic running mate, Vice President-Elect Joe Biden.  Obama and Biden are both strong supporters of reproductive health access, widespread access to prevention methods and comprehensive sexuality education.

According to an excellent article in The Boston Globe today that explores the Catholic vote as well as anti-choice Catholic leaders exploration of that vote,

There must be a lot of disappointed Catholic bishops this morning — dozens of them issued statements over the last few weeks suggesting that abortion should be the primary issue for Catholic voters, and yet it appears that a majority of Catholic voters opted for the abortion-rights supporting candidate in the race, Barack Obama, and helped him win the presidency. 

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Catholics didn’t just break from the shackles a group of religious leaders have burdened them with over the last eight years in particular, they rallied behind Obama in spite of Obama’s strong pro-choice stance. Why? 

Reproductive health advocates might attribute it to Obama’s ability to broaden the reproductive and sexual health conversation beyond the pro vs. anti-choice discourse that never seems to evolve into anything but more division. Instead Obama has been able to redirect the conversation, nationally, to focus on the importance of giving women and families the tools to plan for the families they want and care for the families they have with access to contraception and preventive measures. He also publicly supports, and was angrily attacked by his opponent for,  comprehensive sex-ed – programs that are proven to provide a strong foundation to our young people so they can make the best decisions they can for their health and lives. These are also programs overwhelmingly supported by U.S. parents.  These are issues Americans feel secure in supporting and they are issues that do not so bitterly divide the electorate. 

The Reverend Thomas J. Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University tells The Boston Globe that he attributes the Catholic support of Obama, in part, to "a few anti-abortion, high profile, lay Catholic intellectuals." He is, no doubt, speaking of people Doug Kmiec, a known pro-life scholar who strongly and vocally supported Barack Obama despite their differences of opinion on abortion and other reproductive health issues. 

But we should not doubt the power that progressive religious figures who support reproductive health and rights, played in encouraging Catholic voters to expand their perspective on these issues. Rev. Carlton Veazy of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice says of Obama’s win, "We are a nation that believes in the right to make decisions according to our faith and conscience – and reproductive choice is the embodiment of that fundamental principle."

Some Catholic leaders are not happy. They clearly see the Catholic vote for Obama as a betrayal of Catholic principals according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ "Faithful Citizenship" document which outlines the ways in which Catholics should make political decisions, particularly with voting; the core issue in the document being "the right to life for the unborn."

Of utmost importance, public policy wise, to this group of extremely religious, far right Catholic leaders, is the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) – a bill that President-Elect Obama has promised to sign into law as one of his first acts. FOCA federally codifies that which Roe v. Wade allows and essentially would override any anti-choice state legislation that bars access to legal abortion outlined in Roe v. Wade. This will clearly be the focus for the religious right over the coming months. It remains to be seen whether President-Elect Obama will choose to pass a sweeping bill like FOCA immediately or whether this is something, in the midst of a dismal economic environment, and two wars, most Catholic voters will feel the need to challenge. But Reese is looking for that magic bullet to bring Catholic voters "back into the fold":

"Will the abortion debate rise up again in four years at the next presidential election? A lot depends on President Obama and the Democratic Congress. If they push through the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), then they will have betrayed their pro-life Catholic supporters. This will make it nearly impossible for these people to support them again. On the other hand, if they make a priority the enactment of an abortion reduction bill, then it will be more difficult for the bishops and the Republicans to portray the Democrats as the pro-abortion party."

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