Getting Catholic voters, mostly

mswFor months, I criticized the print press for not covering the Democratic presidential candidates’ outreach to religious Democrats in general and Catholic Democrats specifically. I didn’t get it. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had religious outreach directors. Yet until the Pennsylvania primary in April, reporters avoided writing about their efforts.

Now things have changed, as Mollie’s post shows. Reporters are doing more than writing about the campaigns’ outreach to Catholics. They are also writing balanced, informed stories about them. While the stories are less than perfect, they are superior to their predecessors.

Exhibit A is this story by David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times.

Kirkpatrick wrote about how Catholic voters in key swing states are divided about the issue of abortion, not so much about whether the nation’s abortions laws are desirable but rather the extent to which the issue should influence Catholics’ votes this fall. As I show in Why the Democrats are Blue, this storyline is an old one, stretching back to the 1976 presidential election, but Kirkpatrick’s was better than previous stories in one respect.

Kirkpatrick showed that Catholic bishops’ public criticism of pro-choice Catholic Democrats was persuading Catholic Democratic voters to cast their ballots for a Republican presidential candidate. In fact, Kirkpatrick made this his lede:

Until recently, Matthew Figured, a Sunday school teacher at the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church here, could not decide which candidate to vote for in the presidential election.

He had watched progressive Catholics work with the Democratic Party over the last four years to remind the faithful of the party’s support for Catholic teaching on the Iraq war, immigration, health care and even reducing abortion rates.

But then his local bishop plunged into the fray, barring Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, from receiving communion in the area because of his support for abortion rights.

Finally, bishops around the country scolded another prominent Catholic Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, for publicly contradicting the church’s teachings on abortion, some discouraging parishioners from voting for politicians who hold such views.

Now Mr. Figured thinks he will vote for the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona. “People should straighten out their religious beliefs before they start making political decisions,” Mr. Figured, 22, said on his way into Sunday Mass.

I liked this lede. I think its point is true: the Bishops’ public comments about issues influence many Catholic voters, though how many it does is impossible to say. And I think the lede got religion: rather than dismissing the remarks of bishops, which has been a key media narrative about Catholics since the advent of the birth-control controversy, Catholic voters take them into account.

Later, Kirkpatrick showed that some Catholic voters are influence not only by the bishops but also church teaching, or at least their interpretation of it:

Dozens of interviews with Catholics in Scranton underscored the political tumult in the parish pews. At Holy Rosary’s packed morning Masses on Sunday in working-class North Scranton and the Pennsylvania Polka Festival downtown that afternoon, many Clinton supporters said they were planning to vote for Mr. Obama, some saying they sided with their labor unions instead of the church and others repeating liberal arguments about church doctrine broader than abortion.

“I think that one of the teachings of God is to take care of the less fortunate,” said Susan Tighe, an insurance lawyer who identified herself as “a folk Catholic, from the guitar-strumming social-justice side” of the church.

But more said they now leaned toward Mr. McCain, citing both his experience and his opposition to abortion. Paul MacDonald, a retired social worker mingling over coffee after Mass at Holy Rosary, said he had voted for Mr. Kerry four years ago and Mrs. Clinton in the primary but now planned to vote for Mr. McCain because of “the life issue.”

I liked this section, too. Kirkpatrick was not using scare quotes about abortion; the life issue is a euphemism. And he talked to ordinary voters in addition to experts; many reporters rely on the latter at the expense of the former.

That said, the story had a flaw characteristic of the media’s coverage of religious voters. It got politics as much as it did religion — Catholic voters are split between the two parties and the two major presidential campaigns are courting Catholics.

For example, I think Kirkpatrick should have quoted from the bishops about the following statement:

After the 2004 election, progressive Catholics started to organize and appeared to win some victories. In 2006, the bishops’ conference all but banned outside voter guides from parishes. And last fall, the bishops revised their official statement on voting priorities to explicitly allow Catholics to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights if they do so for other reasons. And it also allowed for differences of opinion about how to apply church principles. The statement appeared to leave room for Democrats to argue that social programs were an effective way to reduce abortion rates, an idea the party recently incorporated into its platform.

This passage left me with questions. Is there a source for the assertion that the bishops’ conference virtually banned outside voter guides? Also, the bishops’ statement left room for difference of opinion about applying church principles? Hmm.

In any event, those are only a couple of complaints. I think on the whole the story got religion, certainly far more than previous stories have.

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  • Brian Walden

    Kirkpatrick absolutely nailed getting the voices of everyday Catholics. The problem he ran into is he kept listening to them instead of capturing the bishops’ voices while describing the USCCB and its voter guide.

  • tmatt


    That, of course, is the whole issue. Journalists tend to think that these voices have equal weight, because that is the church journalists would want.

    That may be the American Catholic Church. But is it the Roman Catholic Church? Bingo.

  • Mark Stricherz

    Both of you make a good point: Kirkpatrick let the Catholic masses speak but not the Catholic elites.

  • Elizabeth

    I think you’re absolutely right about what was lacking in the NY Times story. What got me most was Kirkpatrick’s paraphrasing of Faithful Citizenship, particularly the part on voting for a pro-abortion candidate “for other reasons” — the bishops wrote “grave moral reasons,” which seems strong enough wording to warrant a direct quote in his article.

  • Peggy

    Why must rank and file Catholics be Democrats, Mark?

  • Charles Jones

    Barack Hussein Obama’s twenty year affiliation with a “Black Liberation Theology” church (loosely defined) will end up hurting him more with Catholics then abortion or anything else. The liberation part of his “church” is Marxist and the Black part is racist and anti-Semitic. As our current Pope has written:
    “An analysis of the phenomenon of liberation theology reveals that it constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.”
    Liberation Theology
    Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Preliminary Notes
    Fall 1984.

  • Brian Walden

    Peggy, I don’t think anyone said that Catholics must be Democrats. What we’ve said is that Kirkpatrick showed us the views of ordinary Catholics. How many times have you heard a Catholic say something like, “I think that one of the teachings of God is to take care of the less fortunate,” to justify abortion. I could picture the average parishioner at my parish eating a donut after Mass and saying that exact same phrase. I don’t like that that’s the way it is, but it is. He didn’t give us cardboard cutouts of what a Catholic should be or of stereotypical CINO Catholics. He gave us real Catholics. I think that Catholics who vote choose a candidate strictly based on their stance on abortion (either for or against) are in minority. Your average Catholic struggles to weigh it among other issues and reach a decision – we got to see their thought processes in this article.

    What the article lacked, was the counter balance of effectively presenting the Church’s teachings. The article would have been much more interesting if he had accurately represented the US bishops, highlighting the discrepancy between what Catholics are supposed to believe and what they actually do believe. That’s real life and it makes for an interesting story.

  • Scott M.

    It’s an absolute lie that the Bishops stated that Catholics can vote for pro-abort politicians based on any “other issues”.