If only the nonpartisan Lillian Carter were still here

BushPope.jpgMaura Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times reports today on President Bush’s plan to attend Pope John Paul II’s funeral, interpreting it as an effort to cultivate votes among Catholics:

Some might read Bush’s inclination to fly to Rome as a transparent attempt to court Catholics, a constituency in the cross hairs of strategists seeking to expand the Republican electoral base.

But for all the praise the president has lavished on Pope John Paul II in recent days, the relationship between the two men and their politics was tense and complex. And for all the attention paid to the role of social conservatives in Republican politics, the “Catholic vote” is still up for grabs.

“Both the pope and the president have indeed had an impact on socially conservative Catholics becoming more Republican,” said Mark J. Rozell, an expert on religion and politics at George Mason University outside Washington. “But the non-churchgoing or occasionally churchgoing still don’t identify with the Republican Party.”

In his comments after the pope’s death, Bush emphasized the pontiff’s support for the “culture of life” — a phrase the president borrowed from the pope and uses to refer broadly to specific positions on abortion, euthanasia and marriage.

But the president made no mention of other issues on which he and the pope disagreed: the decision to go to war in Iraq, the death penalty and the West’s responsibility, in the pope’s view, to curb rampant consumerism and combat global poverty.

A few thoughts:

• George Bush is not running for the presidency again, and it won’t be much longer before his name is preceded by “lame duck.”

• Does anyone think many Catholics would be more inclined to support Social Security reform, or the war in Iraq, simply because President Bush attends the pope’s funeral?

Of course Bush’s relationship with John Paul II was tense and complex. Given the pope’s widely known convictions about abortion, is it possible to imagine that his differences with President Clinton made for hours of hilarity and backslapping?

• Is George Bush now on record as supporting rampant consumerism or rejecting the West’s role in combating global poverty?

Reynolds includes some helpful distinctions from John C. Green, the University of Akron’s always insightful researcher on religion and politics:

“Catholics haven’t become more conservative,” said the University of Akron’s Green. “They have pretty much the same views as they had in the past. The difference is that more traditionalist Catholics have connected their views to their vote, which meant they voted more Republican.”

“Modernist” Catholics, who by some tallies outnumber the traditionalists, remain staunch Democrats and last year voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who is Catholic.

Near the end of her story, Reynolds mentions this poignant detail:

The last time a pope died — Pope John Paul I in September 1978 — Jimmy Carter was president, and there was little suggestion that he should attend the funeral. Instead, he sent his mother, Lillian, to represent the country.

But since then, starting with Carter when John Paul II visited the U.S. in 1979, American presidents have courted the pontiff, perhaps none so assiduously as Bush. But analysts say that such a courtship may hold sway only with the traditional Catholics who most revere the pope.

Here’s another possibility that applies both to Catholics and other Christians: John Paul II’s dynamism made it unthinkable that another president would send his retired mother to a papal funeral — or at least to John Paul’s funeral.

Reynolds mentions in passing that Ronald Reagan was the first president to send an ambassador to the Vatican. She doesn’t mention that the fiercest objections to that appointment came not from traditionalist Catholics or from conservative Republicans, but from the advocates of church-state separation. For that breakthrough, among many others, social conservatives have many reasons to be thankful for John Paul II’s life and legacy.

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  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    One thing that’s been lost in the shuffle in all this “political” discussion is that when Carter was president the US didn’t recognize the Vatican. It wasn’t until 1984 that they had an embassy in this country, and IIRC it was extremely controversial, because there was still a lot of anti-Cathoilc attitude among the Christian Right.

    So, if Bush goes to Rome, he will go to the funeral of a head of state. If Carter had gone to Rome in ’78, he would have gone to the funeral of a religious leader.

  • Tom Breen

    Let’s dispense with the “But Bush can’t run for re-election!” objection. Presidents campaign for their parties; even second-term presidents. I take it that nothing Bill Clinton did between 1997 and 2001 was motivated by political concerns? No thought of influencing the midterm elections? Come on.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com/ servetus

    “Is George Bush now on record as rejecting the West’s role in combating global poverty?”

    No, though he is on record as rejecting every proposal out there on the table which has been proposed in dealing with global poverty.

  • Erik Nelson

    Well, it was good to see Mark Rozell quoted in one of these articles. (I was a teaching assistant for Rozell when he was a professor at Catholic University).

    The press also seems to get wrong the Pope’s position on the Iraq war, which is far more nuanced than they are usually willing to grant (as is his position on the death penalty). Disagreement over western consumption and materialism is a bit more difficult to put a finger on. After all, JPII was strongly pro-free markets.

    But while there were disagreements, their disagreements were agreeable ones.

    As for servetus’ comment, this is simply a lie. The one proposal out there on the table which has been accepted by Bush (and JPII, one might add) and which has been demonstrated to work is – free market, democratic capitalism, teamed with religious freedom and human rights. Where these things exist, poverty is ameliorated. Is that the final word in helping the poor? No, of course not. But your slander on Bush and, indirectly, all conservatives, simply demonstrates ideological blindness and a lack of Christian Charity.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin J Jones

    Reynolds writes “Until President Reagan sent an ambassador to the Holy See in 1984, the United States did not have formal relations with the Vatican.”

    I believe this is historically incorrect. There is a 1995 Background Notes article from the State Department at http://www.umsl.edu/services/govdocs/backgroundnotes/holysee.txt which says:

    “The United States maintained consular relations with the Papal States from 1797 to 1870 and diplomatic relations with the Pope, in his capacity as head of the Papal States, from 1848 to 1868. These relations lapsed with the final loss of all papal territories in 1870.

    From 1870 to 1984, the United States did not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Several recent presidents, however, designated personal envoys to visit the Holy See periodically for discussions of international humanitarian and political issues. Myron C. Taylor was the first of these representatives, serving from 1939 to 1950. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan also appointed personal envoys to the Pope.”

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    “….social conservatives have many reasons to be thankful for John Paul II’s life and legacy.”

    Actually, Doug, I think social conservatives need to thank the Pope for dying when he did. This news sure has taken the heat away from their hand-in-glove relationship with the Republican congress exhibited lately in Pinellas Park. Terri who?

  • Erik Nelson

    Kevin, I think the key word is “formal.” There was no ambassador to the Vatican until Reagan. Before then, relations with the Vatican were ad hoc. A personal envoy from the President is one thing, but an ambassador with an embassy has official standing that an envoy does not.

    I’m not sure the remarks are incorrect so much as they are simply imprecise and overly simplify what is obviously a more complicated history.

    And to Molly, I’m not under the impression that the Pope’s death has taken heat away from the Shiavo story. My impression is that the stories have, instead, rather fed off of each other. Most social conservatives have seen these as complementary stories.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin J Jones

    “Kevin, I think the key word is “formal.” There was no ambassador to the Vatican until Reagan. Before then, relations with the Vatican were ad hoc. A personal envoy from the President is one thing, but an ambassador with an embassy has official standing that an envoy does not.”

    I quite agree that the post-1870s, pre-Reagan relations were ad hoc and not formal. But the consulate to the papal states seems to me unquestionably part of formal diplomatic relations. Unless there is technical meaning to the word “formality” in diplomatic circles, I’ll stick by my attempted correction for now.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/archives/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    I thank you for your correction, Kevin, which provided information I’d never encountered before.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Catholics haven’t become more conservative,” said the University of Akron’s Green. “They have pretty much the same views as they had in the past. The difference is that more traditionalist Catholics have connected their views to their vote, which meant they voted more Republican.”

    I think this comment is only 1/2 right. Mr. Green is right, Catholic’s haven’t changed their views on anything of substance John XXIII was alive. What Mr. Green ignores the fact that since the Chicago convention of 1968 the Democratic Party has been moving steadily to the Left.

    Example: My Dad was raised Pittsburgh Irish-Catholic during the Great Depression, and FDR’s policies made a conceret difference on how much food was on the family dinner table. He was a die-hard Democrat when I was growing up. I distinctly recall our family sorrow over Humphery loosing in ’68, and my Dad muttering about “Lesser of two Evils” when he had to hold his nose and vote for Nixon in ’72.

    Then came Roe v. Wade, and Gay Rights, and Euthenasia and a host of other issues as the Left wing of the Democratic Party rose to power and took controll of the party. By 1976 my Dad was actively supporting Ford, by 1980 he was a regestered Republican, by 1984 he was stuffing envelopes for the Reagan re-election campaign.

    Mr. Green is right, my Dad’s views haven’t changed on anything, and neither has Catholic doctrine. What HAS changed is the Democratic Party. I can remember when there were still Pro-Life Democrats, before they became extinct. Heck I can remember when Dick Gephart was the darling of the PRO-Life movement… before he decided he needed to flip flop that postion so he could get the Democratic Nomination for President. Of course the party has changed! Can you imagine JFK or FDR supporting Partial-Birth Abortion, the removal of prayer from schools, and Gay Marriage as part of their platform?

    As Ronald Reagan said “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party… it was the Party that left ME!” Those Catholics who take their religion seriously can say the same thing.


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