A point of personal privilege

Eunice&TedDuring a recent post about the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, I used the term “cafeteria Catholic” and then — with great haste — emphasized that this condition exists on the right side of the political fence, as well.

I also personalized the issue, a bit, leading to this exchange with a loyal liberal GetReligion reader:

… [A]s a Democrat I am well aware that there are politically conservative Republican Catholics who choose to eat in their own doctrinal cafeteria.

I just want to make sure I understand: You say you’re a Democrat?

– Mithras, August 29, 2009, at 3:47 pm

Well, I just don’t say that I am a Democrat, I am actually registered as one. If you ever walk into my office, look for the large framed portrait of that noted right-winger Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and my well-worn copy of “Fighting for Life,” by the late Gov. Robert Casey).

In response to the comment by Mithras, which echoes similar comments I have heard through the years, I posted the following snippet of commentary:

As I have stated many times, I am a pro-life Democrat. I used to be a very standard issue left-wing Democrat, as many folks are in graduate school, but swung back to a pro-life position after reading the famous Sojourners issue on life issues — especially the Jesse Jackson essay on legalized abortion as a form of institutionalized racism — back in 1980. That was a turning point. My family’s journey into the ancient Eastern Orthodox faith has left me in position where I am highly critical of many positions taken by both of the major parties. It’s not an easy era in which to be a consistently pro-life voter.

Now, I post this information again simply to note that I believe that it is possible to be both a traditional Christian in an ancient church and a struggling Democrat. By the way, I also believe that it’s possible to be a struggling Republican, while embracing the moral and social teachings of historic Christianity. Like I said, this is not an age for easy choices.

However, Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written a striking column on this subject, which I pass along as a point of personal privilege even though GetReligion rarely if every comments on editorials of this kind.

You see, I got really tired of the old “Edward Kennedy was the man the right-wing wackos loved to hate” theme that ran through much of the coverage of the senator’s death and his funeral rites. It is, of course, true that many right-wing leaders could not stand the man. However, it’s important to remember that not all pro-lifers are conservatives. I would argue that many pro-life progressives — especially Catholics — felt a unique and highly painful sense of disappointment through most of Kennedy’s political career.

Thus, it’s hard for pro-life Democrats not to reflect on the deaths of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her more famous brother.

Thus, Douthat wrote:

What the siblings shared — in addition to the grace, rare among Kennedys, of a ripe old age and a peaceful death — was a passionate liberalism and an abiding Roman Catholic faith. These two commitments were intertwined: Ted Kennedy’s tireless efforts on issues like health care, education and immigration were explicitly rooted in Catholic social teaching, and so was his sister’s lifelong labor on behalf of the physically and mentally impaired.

What separated them was abortion.

Along with her husband, Sargent Shriver, Eunice belonged to America’s dwindling population of outspoken pro-life liberals. Like her church, she saw a continuity, rather than a contradiction, between championing the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed and protecting unborn human life.

Her brother took a different path.

democrat350There were, of course, other issues on which they differed, but it’s safe to say that many or most of those issues were linked to matters of Catholic faith and doctrine, as well.

So was Eunice Kennedy Shriver (don’t forget her husband, Sargent, too) a liberal Democrat in the Religious Right, or was she a pro-lifer in the Religious Left (perhaps a soul sister to some in the Sojourners orbit)? Or is it safe to say that the press needs to rethink how some of these labels are used?

Of course I take this issue personally. I admit that right up front. But do we really live in an age in which people on the left cannot conceive of a doctrinally traditional Christian being a Democrat? You see, I thought it was the nasty Republicans on the right who were supposed to make those kinds of attacks.

You can also see that this might affect news coverage of some of these sanctity-of-life issues, beginning with abortion and continuing through natural death.

Is it really that hard for journalists to believe that a few pro-life liberals still exist? How about conservative or moderate Democrats who are still pro-life? Might they help President Barack Obama pass a health-care package?

Just saying….

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    It was commentary, not journalism, but at least one major columnist seems to think that all liberals are opposed to abortion. (I kid.) Right after Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s death, Eleanor Clift was on the Diane Rehm Show, and in the closing minutes (last 1:30) said that Shriver’s death comes at a time when conservatives

    are accusing liberals of wanting to end the lives of children with Down’s Syndrome. The Kennedy/Shriver legacy refutes that.

    I wonder if she was saving it for the end of the program so that no one could take her to task for deftly avoiding the past 40 years of abortion politics.

  • Jerry

    I almost skipped this topic because the GR coverage of Senator Kennedy has struck me, to put it bluntly, too cable news like with topic after topic devoted to the coverage.

    The abortion issue brings out the worst in people both left and right. I would claim that the almost death threats being made against President Obama from the right are much worse than what the left is doing but both sides have departed from, dare I say it, virtues such what Jesus preached on the Sermon on the Mount.

    The debate, or more honestly, shouting match, reduces both extremes to caricatures with strong boundaries as to what is an acceptable position and clear definitions about who the enemy is.

    The real divide to my eyes is whether or not people on all sides of the issue are willing to look for common ground or insist it’s “my way or the highway”. Surveys have shown that the majority of the American people are, to no surprise, in the middle and naturally want policies that anger both extremes.

    I suggested this as a topic. I suspect that the usual suspects will say the usual things about this coming development

    White House will announce what it calls a “common ground” plan on reducing demand for abortion that the faith-based office helped craft after conferring with scores of religious groups and leaders. “This administration has taken it to a different level in terms of real input from the faith community on policy,” says Jim Wallis…


  • Kyle

    Sure, Jerry. Because why wouldn’t 3,500 dead babies today be something we could just compromise on?

    What is the deal you’re proposing? Something like this, I imagine: We pretend they’re really not babies or that they’re not really violently turned from living to dead by abortion. In return, you and the prez will stop falsely accusing us of lying and being terrorists and you will fund Planned Parenthood with our tax dollars while pretending it will reduce the “need” for killing babies.

    Thanks, but no thanks.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I am leaving Jerry and Kyle’s comments up.

    But please return to the basic journalism issue at hand. I know I opened a editorial door here, but do your best.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    I suspect most GR readers get your point pretty intuitively, tmatt. It is easy for the press (and far easier for partisan commentators) to divide the world into artificial categories — “all liberals believe such-and-so, all conservatives believe the opposite.” This despite the fact that any prolonged acquaintance with real people, at least thoughtful and reflective ones, gives these categories the lie.

    And yes, religion complicates the whole mess. An easy example is the matter of modern Catholic social teaching, which seems left-of-liberal, until you get to the places where it isn’t. But there are many more instances, each of them laser-specific to a particular religious community and particular set of political ideals.

    This isn’t just a problem for press coverage; it often creates stresses among the faithful, who wrestle with a church, or a party, that shares some of their deepest convictions, but not others. (The late Richard John Neuhaus once quipped that he was a lifelong Democrat, “faithful to my party in everything except voting.”)

    But for the press — and I pity reporters here, especially the good ones — the message is pretty clear. The shorthand categories, so useful for putting together snappy 800-word piece, are likely to hide more than they reveal. Unless you are pretty well versed in the doctrines, polity, social statements and (just as useful) sociology of a particular religious community, it is all but impossible to describe the way these things interact at a meeting, or in a press release, or in the life of a politician actively engaged with his or her church.

    This, incidentally, is not just a problem for people writing on the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. GR often talks about the much abused category of “evangelicals,” but “liberal,” “mainline,” and (perhaps especially) “Protestant” are just as likely to mislead the non-specialist reader. Or writer.

  • Dan Crawford

    Ted Kennedy’s pro-abortion stance was a deep disappointment to me, especially in view of the fact that abortion as a eugenics tool is used so often to terminate the lives of those with conditions like the forgotten Kennedy sister, Rosemary. Ted was a great disability rights activist, but apparently could not see the profound disconnect between that and his advocacy of abortion. Eunice did and showed great courage in making her stand public. Unfortunately, the media do not really want to address how sadly like the Germany of the early 20th century we have become.

  • kristy

    I think that the assumption by the media and others, is that a Democrat is, by default, pro-abortion. This makes those of us who are not Catholic, yet pro-life and Democrats feel as though we are isolated and alone (and maybe a little bit weird.) Thanks, TMatt, for reminding me there are others out there. Do you think that we’re a rare and exotic enough breed to get some media coverage??

  • Barbara

    You asked “But do we really live in an age in which people on the left cannot conceive of a doctrinally traditional Christian being a Democrat?”

    The simple answer is a resounding “Yes”!!! As a graduate of a liberal seminary I can attest to my experience that a doctrinally traditional Christian is neither welcomed nor considered to be a real Democrat!

  • Jon in the Nati

    “I think that the assumption by the media and others, is that a Democrat is, by default, pro-abortion.”

    While I agree, it is worth noting that there is a reason why that mistake is made. There are certain things that one _almost has to believe_ if one is to go anywhere in the Democratic party. Part of that “Democratic Orthodoxy” is abortion rights. Remember Bob Casey in 1992? (I know Terry does…)

    Really, how many national-level, explicitly pro-life Democrats are there? Not many. Take a look at Democrats for Life; in 2008, that organization endorsed 7 candidates; all were House candidates, and relative newcomers to politics (I think 4 had never held any office before). Its not a particularly impressive bunch.

  • Kyle

    Actually, Democrats for Life has made its presence felt a couple of times of late. Perhaps most notable was the group of 19 pro-life Dem reps who sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi saying they will not vote for a health care bill that does not explicitly exclude abortion funding. That was signed by long-timers like Bart Stupak and newcomers like Heath Shuler, when the party welcomed pro-life Dems in conservative districts in a successful push to take Congress. Dan Gilgoff has the goods here.

    Incidentally, this is a pretty good illustration of how the “common ground” con works. One obvious, elemental point of common ground in reducing abortions is refusing to publicly fund abortion, a position that has overwhelming public support, has the virtue of respecting the consciences of pro-life Americans and, if not reducing abortions, at least will not dramatically add to the number of them. Do you see those who are piously intoning high-minded words about common ground stampeding to pass the amendments folks like Rep. Stupak – in their own party – have put forward to ensure that even this minimal, commonsense, consensus position is adopted? QED.

  • Kyle

    Incidentally, I actually think the coverage of pro-life Democrats has improved slightly. My recollection, anyway, is that this story got very little coverage outside of the religious press. By contrast, the efforts of those 19 pro-life Dems have been reported in mainstream newspapers, sometimes with fairness. See a quick search here.

    Obviously the major difference is that the first story is about how pro-life Democrats lacked the power to make not so much the press but primarily their own party pay attention to them. In the second story, they have had more impact on the course of events.

  • dalea

    The journalistic problem I see here is that somehow ‘pro-choice’ is converted to ‘pro-abortion’, which is a slight of hand trick worthy of Houdini. As a liberal Democrat, I regard myself as ‘pro-choice’. This means I find the decision to carry to term or not one that should be the sole perogative of the woman and her conscience. If she chooses to carry to term, so be it. If she chooses abortion, so be it. It is each woman’s personal choice.

    So, how the press, or at least the conservative leaning press, twists this simple deference to the individual into ‘pro-abortion’ I can not say. This treatment has always struck me as fundamentally dishonest.

    The thesis that if you do not favor making abortion illegal, you are ‘pro-abortion’ makes no sense to me. Yet journalists report this contention from conservatives all the time.

  • Jerry

    The thesis that if you do not favor making abortion illegal, you are ‘pro-abortion’ makes no sense to me.

    Surveys of Americans have shown people believing that women should have a choice but that there should be restrictions on that choice.

    The problem that Terry raised and that dalea echoed is stereotyping and pigeon-holing. There’s also an issue of simplistic coverage of the issue.

    I think the root cause of many abortions if you think that http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_why.htm is even close to accurate is lack of reverence for life and lack of responsibility to plan ahead in the majority of cases.

    Assuming I’m correct, these are spiritual issues that need to be addressed at that level. Otherwise, even if abortion is outlawed, some will not get abortions, to be sure, but many middle and upper class women will either get RU486 on the black market or fly off to get their abortion elsewhere. And the poor will get back-alley abortions or the children will suffer from being unwanted.

    If the media ever covered an in-depth look at the root causes and fundamental cures for the mess we’re in right now, I’ll know the Kingdom of Heaven has arrived at which point the debate would be moot.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Neither of your options are AP style these days.

    The phrase journalists are supposed to be using is “pro-abortion rights.”

    Pro-choice is the label of the left and the press is supposed to avoid that spin. With my editor’s permission, I only use “pro-life” in an explicitly religious context — for consistent life figures.

    In other words, Benedict XVI is pro-life. John McCain is anti-abortion. Kind of.

  • Chris Bolinger

    or the children will suffer from being unwanted

    Right. I’m sure they’d much rather be dead.

    Go ahead and strike this one, Terry. I just couldn’t let it go without a comment. I have heard this tortured logic for far too long from well-meaning people.

  • Harris

    One other difficulty is that the “pro-life” in the context of the Dems is squishier than how the term is understood on the Right. Internally, the Dems for Life crew is pretty staunchly Catholic in orientation (pro-life issues start with fertilization), most Dems who would characterize themselves as pro-life draw the line somewhere else, at implantation or even at viability. Where the conservatives think these others are less than sincere, internally much of the activist base considers these same folk as DINOs, a barely tolerated group.

    Activists on both sides look at “Common Ground” programs with a great deal of suspicion, often believing and stating as such, that these programs represent the creeping edge of the other side’s ideology. The reality, is that often they are the social programs in which both sides can find some consonance with their convictions.

    On the Dem side, then, “pro-life” becomes more a narrative in which one understands political and legislative activity. In this, it stands against other secular or pragmatic philosophies within the party coalition.

    This role of narrative points to what I missed from the Kennedy coverage, and what I think Douthat also walked away from, namely the degree to which the Senator’s actions flowed from a religious narrative. That is, to what extent did he see himself living out his faith?

  • Kyle

    The thesis that if you do not favor making abortion illegal, you are ‘pro-abortion’ makes no sense to me.

    Let me help you understand. Imagine you live in a country in which chattel slavery is legally a matter of a white landowner’s individual choice. There are some people who, (rightly) believing black people are human persons with a right not to be slaves, call for the complete abolition of that institution. There are others who would probably call themselves pragmatists who, while recognizing the evil of slavery, think that because slavery has existed throughout human history it likely cannot be eradicated. They therefore seek to restrict it with greater limitations, curtail it, whatever they can to seriously reduce it or at least keep it from spreading. Both these groups are, to one degree or another, anti-slavery or pro-freedom, although I think the latter position a grave moral error.

    Their opponents certainly include those who are pro-slavery in the fullest sense – those who, having (wrongly) convinced themselves that black people are not fully human persons and lack any rights that would prohibit slavery, hold slaves themselves, advocate enslaving people and so on. But this is a minority position. Most of the support for slavery comes from people who agree on the (erroneous) philosophical belief that black people lack rights that would make the institution of slavery unacceptable. They believe slavery is something a white landowner should have to choose, even though they may never wish to hold slaves themselves and may find the whole thing somewhat distasteful. Nevertheless, when it comes time to shape the laws, they consistently act to preserve the legal right to hold slaves, against those who wish to ban it or curtail it.

    Is it “fundamentally dishonest” to consider that position pro-slavery, in your estimation?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And I take it,dalea, that you also rebuke the lefties who call people who disagree with them “pro-war” and “anti-environment”. Oh, that’s DIFFERENT.

    And there is the use of “womansrighttochoose” as a euphemism for abortion by people who do NOT support choice in any other connection. Libertarians are pro-choice. The abortion lobby is simply using a sleight of hand “worthy of Houdini”.

    Sorry, I could not let this go by either.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Spiking away, liberally.

    Back to the journalism issues. Take your personal fights about abortion issues to the Cafe.

  • Jerry

    Terry, I think it would be useful to post that link when you remind people to ‘take it elsewhere’: http://groups.google.com/group/getreligion-coffeehouse/topics

  • http://www.turntheclockforward.org/ Jen R

    It’s hard for journalists to see pro-life Democrats and/or liberals because the right wing of the pro-life movement so utterly dominates and defines the meaning of the term. “Pro-life” means banning abortion, and it only means banning abortion, and any attempt to work with pro-choicers or any disagreement about the effectiveness or wisdom of “pro-life” laws makes you suspect at best and kicked out of the club at worst. It’s gotten to the point that although I have identified as pro-life for as long as I can remember, I suspect I’ll soon stop. (Which does not mean identifying as “pro-choice”, but try telling that to a binary thinker.)

    The “conservative or moderate Dems [who] might help President Barack Obama pass a health-care package” are constantly attacked as not really being pro-life. Given that, I can’t blame journalists for not seeing liberal or Democratic pro-lifers. There are a ton of people left of center who want to end abortion, but they’re not welcome in the club due to how they’d rather do it.

  • http://www.turntheclockforward.org/ Jen R

    I should add that journalists themselves are generally binary thinkers in this regard, so if you’re not “pro-life” as NRLC or ALL define it, you must either be “pro-choice” or just not exist. A lot of liberals and Democrats end up in that non-existing area.