Addressing Obama's Catholic Problem

This column was written by Michael Sean Winters.
Barack Obama has a Catholic problem. While Catholics constitute only 23 percent of the nation's population, their numbers are higher in such critical states as Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. And he lost badly among those voters this winter and spring. In New Hampshire, at the beginning of the primary season, Hillary Clinton took 44 percent of the Catholic vote to Obama's 27 percent. Toward the end of the primary season, in Pennsylvania, Clinton won 70 percent of the Catholic vote to Obama's 30. Pundits and pollsters have mostly focused on other demographic characteristics among Clinton's supporters: They were older, less educated, and earned less than $50,000. There is undoubtedly a great deal of overlap. But Obama consistently ran better among Protestants than he did among Catholics.

Obama doesn't need to take drastic action to make up for this deficit. He doesn't need to bring a Catholic priest into his "brain trust" like FDR did in 1932, and he doesn't need to win overwhelmingly among Catholics like John F. Kennedy did in 1960. But here's the interesting part: In articulating his economic views in ways that are especially accessible to Catholics, Obama would do much more than just increase his chances with that constituency. He'd discover that Catholic social thought provides Democrats with the kind of moral vision and linguistic clarity that their economic positions have lacked for decades now.

In early July, the Obama campaign had itself a "values week." It was a big to-do. The candidate called for extending Bush's faith-based initiatives. He gave a beautiful testimony about his own conversion experience and spoke movingly about how he "let Jesus Christ into my life." Obama has always littered his rhetoric with quotes from Scripture, and he did so even more a few weeks ago. He even allowed that "war and poverty, joblessness and homelessness, violent streets and crumbling schools -- are not simply technical problems ... they are moral problems." But the overall impression of the week was that a ticket was being punched, a check mark put next to the words "values voters" on the campaign checklist. The question is whether he will mention values not just on specifically designated occasions during "values week", but if he'll demonstrate how his values ground his economic and other policies. So far he hasn't.

He could start by borrowing from Catholic social thought, which rests on two foundations: the inalienable dignity of the human person and the common good. Human dignity, though recently derided in TNR has both a religious and a liberal pedigree. For Christians, Jews, and Muslims, it is rooted in the belief that man is created in the image and likeness of God. Modern liberals embrace the notion in different ways, but particularly espouse Kant's argument that a human being is never a means but always an end. In the American context, Lincoln said it best: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy."

Human dignity's necessary social corollary is the common good. Not only are we all essentially equal; we are all in this together. The common good embraces the idea that property rights are not absolute and that the good of everyone in a society has a claim on each of us within that society. In the 2004 convention keynote that first catapulted Obama to national attention, he referenced a biblical injunction that speaks to the same core idea: "Alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we're all connected as one people. ... I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper."

Too often, though, Democrats speak of economic plans as if they were distinct and unrelated to any common national purpose. They speak in abstract, de-personalized terms. Health care is presented as "a right" and education policy as an exercise in acquisitiveness ("Our plan for success for pre-schoolers!"). But insuring the uninsured is also a decent thing to do, providing better education is in part about valuing the work and wisdom of our ancestors, and raising living standards for the poor and near-poor is what we owe our least fortunate. Economic realities are, for everyone except economists, existential realities -- and all these policies help enhance human dignity and further the common good. Yet, in his major speech on health care in Iowa last year, Obama reverted to legalese, claiming health care was "a right" instead of invoking the moral obligations Americans owe to one another as citizens and as fellow human beings.

Another long-standing principle of Catholic social thought -- combining both the dignity and social good arguments -- is that the government must intervene whenever the private sector fails to protect and provide for a specific group of people. The seminal papal encyclical on social justice, Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, was clear: "Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or it is threatened with evils which can in no other way be met, the public authority must step in to meet them." Whatever you think of Republican policies in economic terms, they are repugnant in moral terms, and it would behoove Obama to make that case. He hasn't done a good enough job of convincing Americans that John McCain's health care proposal does little or nothing to help the poor; that his flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts has robbed him of both his most courageous vote and a principled stand against the unlimited acquisition of gross wealth; and that time and again, the GOP has stood for the rights of property above the well-being of the whole society.

Government intervention on behalf of the common good is also well-suited to issues that cross geographic and generational boundaries, such as environmental and educational policy. Your factory in Ohio could cause acid rain that pollutes my farm in New York, so individual self-regulation or even policy initiatives at the state level are insufficient. Global warming is, well, global in scope and will require diplomacy to avert its horrific consequences. Educational policy must reflect the moral commitment of one generation to the next: We may not directly and materially benefit from the education our grandchildren receive, but we have a moral obligation to them nonetheless. Self-interest, the foundation of the GOP's laissez-faire approach to problems, lacks the moral weight to adequately address such issues.

In April 2006, Michael Tomasky famously argued that Democrats should embrace the common good, and chastised them for relying overmuch on rights-based language. He noted the many and varied sources for the idea of the common good, from Rousseau's social contract to parts of Madison's writings in the Federalist papers. But Tomasky shunned the religious roots of his argument. This was a mistake: More Americans are familiar with Obama's reference to the biblical letter of St. James than they are with the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and church-goers (which most Americans are) encounter the countless biblical invocations to solidarity more regularly than they flip through their copies of the Federalist papers. Tomasky was correct about the limits of rights-based language, but he missed how speaking about the common good can help Democrats attract religiously motivated voters.

There are, of course, other ways to reach out to Catholics beyond economic issues. Obama can tie his struggle against racial bigotry to the earlier struggle of immigrant Catholics against ethnic and religious bigotry. He can reach out to Latino Catholics by invoking Pope Benedict's call to make keeping families together a focal point for immigration reform. He can go to a Catholic university and discuss how the fiasco in Iraq might have been avoided, not only by reading the National Intelligence Estimate, but also by consulting the 5th century just-war theories of St. Augustine.

Alan Wolfe, one of the nation's foremost analysts of how politics and religion collide in our society and culture, recently wrote (happily, while blurbing my new book) : "As Catholics go, so goes America." In 2008, with all the focus on the economy, Catholics are ripe for Obama to pick if he can master the distinctive ways they view economic issues. Unlike the gloom-and-doom preaching of Calvin's heirs, Catholicism has a more positive take on the possibilities of human culture and politics that would fit Obama's politics of hope nicely. And unlike the disconnected, valueless recipes for economic policy that have plagued previous Democratic campaigns, Obama can unite his policies into a moral vision for where he wants to lead America. Doing that could win him the White House -- and, more importantly, it could give him a blueprint for how to lead once he's there.
By Michael Sean Winters
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