Democrats, Religion, Common Ground: A Response to Korzen

Frances Kissling

In a recent article, Chris Korzen criticizes those wary of his and others' roles in "common ground" efforts and claims the Democrats had abandoned Catholics. But good facts are critical to good ethics and Korzen fails to provide evidence for his claims.

Editor’s note: An earlier and incorrect version of this article was inadvertently published at 9:00 pm due to a technical glitch, but quickly replaced with this version.

I have been in the woods, literally, on a lake. The only internet is a lousy dial up connection.

Today, my patience was high and I took the time to wait for the dial up to connect to “On Common Ground.”  I was glad there was a piece by Chris Korzen.  I don’t know Chris personally, but there is a Catholic connection which makes me believe we have some things in common and considerable tension as we seem to disagree strongly on abortion, contraception, women’s moral agency, what the preferential option for the poor requires, and just about every other issue that I would define as a matter of personal moral freedom as well as the appropriate role of religion in public policy.  Neither of us has shown much interest in actually getting to know each other, so we are left with knowledge through the written word. 

I am very curious about what makes Chris tick; what he thinks and believes and how two people with somewhat similar politics and the same access to knowledge and information – possibly an ethics professor in common – could come to such different conclusions on critical social justice issues.

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I am, for example, suspicious of Chris’ advocacy of “common ground” on abortion.  I don’t trust it as an honest moral impulse and suspect it is political and possibly self-serving. I prefer to be straight forward and direct about my beliefs and take ownership of these feelings. I am prepared to be proven wrong; but if you don’t say what you think you can never get it straightened out. I respect Chris enough to say what I think. Chris has expressed the view that he is suspicious of Catholics for Choice (CFC), and I assume by extension me, although I am no longer associated in any way with CFC. He thinks we are just jealous of the rising tide of access that has rolled in for those Catholics who were active in supporting Obama for president. He says CFC doesn’t do very much. Perhaps he too is wrong.

And so I read Chris’ piece on Obama and the Pope with real interest. I did not like what I read. It did not bring me closer to Chris or serve to foster common ground. This may be my flaw. I am trying to temper my reactions with the reality that I may be predisposed to misread Chris. So, I want to take the opportunity to ask some questions and share my perspective on the points Chris raises – in detail.

I think I was most disturbed by what I saw as a lack of respect for those who disagree with Chris. Throughout the piece straw men and straw women were created and negative views ascribed to them. Not once was a real person mentioned. If Chris wants to write history and be analytical about it, especially critical, it would be helpful if he would attempt to prove his point with concrete examples as well as name some people who fit into the descriptions he gives.

For example, we are told that in the 1970’s the Democratic Party “had deliberately stopped reaching out to many people of faith – Catholics in particularly.”  This claim seems based on a 1971 book written by Fred Dutton, who was a campaign advisor to John Kennedy, chief of staff for Pat Brown, governor of California and manager of Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. All these men are Catholics. Dutton retired from politics in 1972 and while I have not read his book it is hard to imagine that recommending that the Democratic Party reach out to feminists, college educated suburbanites and young people is an abandonment of Catholics. Chris provides little evidence that the party in fact did that. He simply claims it.

My perception is quite different. From the time I came to Washington in 1980, I saw a Democratic Party that was profoundly linked to and respectful of the Catholic Church. Catholics, many prochoice on abortion, were rising in power in elected office. Leahy, Kennedy, Harkin, Moynihan, Dodd were all Catholic leaders and rather than ignore the Catholic Church they worked closely with the bishops on most legislation.

Is Chris suggesting that the Catholics and other Democrats who disagreed with the bishops on a few issues such as abortion and contraception were ignoring the church?

It was said that there was not a piece of health care legislation that was not written by the bishops’ lobbyists for Senator Kennedy. President Carter’s cabinet choices were criticized by those outside the party as “too Catholic” and the first limit on the right to choose–the denial of public funds for abortion–was signed by Carter, passed by a Democratic House and enforced by the Catholic Secretary of HHS, Joseph Califano. It was the Democratic Parry that nominated Gerry Ferraro to the joy of Catholics and the dismay of the bishops. Even pro-life Democrats did well. Mary Rose Oakar held a leadership position as did Marcy Kaptur.

Clinton and Gore were constantly trying to please the bishops while not abandoning a commitment to abortion rights at home. When conflict arose over the US position for the Cairo population conference Clinton insisted that Secretary Wirth personally visit each US Cardinal to hear their concerns and Gore, who was called a liar by the Vatican press secretary insisted that the US was not seeking an international right to abortion. In an interview at the time with Catholics reporters Clinton supported the inclusion of the broadest conscience clause exemption ever proposed for his health care reform plan and affirmed his support for US diplomatic relations with the Vatican. In fact it was in 1980 that the US finally recognized the Vatican as a state with overwhelming support from Democrats in Congress.

I am hard pressed to find evidence to support the claim that Democrats abandoned religion or treated it derisively. I would sincerely like to hear the case made as well as to have some feedback on where my own experience is flawed. I think it is terribly important that we sort through these perceptions regarding the secularity of the Democratic Party as we move forward. Good facts are critical to good ethics.

Chris goes on to say that Democratic strategists of that time “presumably believed that a smaller but more ideologically homogeneous tent was the ticket to success”. He suggests…no, says… these strategists considered socially moderate Americans “little more than monkey wrenches in the cogs of progress.” These are serious charges of disrespect of people long involved in a movement and they deserve to be substantiated or withdrawn.

The piece then moves to a harsh characterization of again unnamed persons: “Proponents of the "small tent" strategy are livid now that the common ground values which put Democrats back in the White House in the first place are playing a vital role in the Obama government.” What is going on here? Who exactly are these proponents and how do we know they are livid about “common ground” values. If I knew their names and what they had said or done, I might be able to evaluate these “charges.”

And they are “charges.” I am interested that Chris sees those who disagree with him and others about common ground as exclusionary and angry. I suspect I am in this category as I have raised many questions about the common ground process currently underway. As is often the case, when I look at this issue, I see the other side of the coin – an attempt to ignore the contributions of those who have worked for common ground for over twenty years, ignoring that which is good in the positions of the other and the creation of a new polarization with those who have not jumped on the common ground band wagon demonized. Even the pro-choice movement’s most ardent and effective advocate of common ground Cristina Page in a comment on the common ground site worried about those, again unnamed, who want to “sabotage” common ground.

“Many feel that those who harbor moral concerns about abortion don’t deserve a role in helping to craft social policy,” says Chris. Again, who are these people? I have expressed opposition to the appointment of Alexia Kelly to HHS, so I must be in this group. Is this a fair characterization of my views? I think not. After all, I was clear that I believed there were many other positions that would better and less contentiously use Ms. Kelly’s talents. I’d like to know if Chris was referring to me and if not me, then whom? He mentions that there have been posts to common ground articles that indicate bias and prejudice. I agree that these posts are disturbing. But to characterize anonymous postings as indicative of leadership views is highly questionable, as are the references to “extreme voices” that call people of faith “backward thinking”; or the far left’s “do what feels right dogma.” This is the kind of language we laughed at and criticized when it came from Falwell and Robertson, and there is no reason to accept it from a progressive common ground Catholic. I have been a card carrying member of the far left since I demonstrated against the war in Vietnam in 1964 at the UN and neither I nor my fellow traveler’s believed anything goes. We had the same high moral standards of justice that moderate Catholics do. Actually ours were more stringent as unlike the Catholic bishops we did not support the war on Vietnam.

Having gotten this far in the article–430 words into an 880 word piece–I realized it was only then that he began to address the President’s meeting with the Pope.

Forgive me, Chris, but describing this as an historic meeting is a stretch.

It was not a mere photo-op: There are of course good reasons for the President and the Pope to meet, to show respect and regard for each other and signal areas of collaboration.

But this is not an historic moment. It is not Reagan and John Paul II. Every president since Dwight Eisenhower has paid a visit to the Vatican and not every visit broke ground. Few caused the earth to move.

There is, for me, a bit of unseemly Catholic triumphalism at play in the progressive world these days and in the overstatement of the influence Catholic social teaching should have on an American president – a triumphalism that could lead to the kind of negative reaction ordinary Americans have had to the over-reaching of the Christian right in the Republican party and a desire by moderate Republicans to take the party back – not because they are hostile to religion but to religious orthodoxy and exclusion….by any religious group. 

It may only be the proverbial pendulum swinging as those who previously felt excluded exult in inclusion.   But too sweeping a claim of Catholic ownership of “concern for the earth,” “economic justice,” “indictment of unregulated free market capitalism,” and “health care for all” leaves out the other 5 billion people in the world, many of whom were writing and speaking about these issues long before the Catholic church and with more consistency over time.

A little humility goes a long way.
There is too much gloating in Catholic publications about our “access” and about which Catholics “have the president’s ear.” It is important for “capital C” Catholics to show a little “small c” catholicity and acknowledge that the President’s willingness to be president of all Americans precludes a privileged place for any faith.

Am I misreading this piece when I say I am concerned that that distinction is not sharply enough made? Is common ground not to be grounded in our common humanity rather than in our denominational affiliations? I hope so. Do you?

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