Bush's Campaign Courting Catholics

In late July, after the G-8 meetings in Genoa, President George W. Bush had a special audience with Pope John Paul II. Earlier that month, during the president's first post-inauguration visit to New York City, he awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the late Cardinal John O'Connor, presenting it to his family. For the past several months the Republican Party has been gearing up a major campaign designed to bring observant Roman catholics into the fold.

Although going after the Catholic vote isn't a new phenomenon, the GOP has been devoting a lot of resources to this project, specifically focusing on religiously active Catholics. A bi-product of this effort has been the opening of another front in America's "culture wars."

Consider the following: Since taking office President Bush has visited with dozens of highly-placed Catholic Church officials. On a recent edition of "Meet the Press," columnist EJ Dionne pointed out that Karl Rove, the president's senior advisor, has been going all out enlisting Catholic support for the president's faith-based initiative. The party recently selected the highly respected and longtime conservative writer and activist, Deal Hudson, to head up its new national Catholic outreach project. And Jim Nicholson, the former GOP National Chairman, will be taking up residence in the Vatican, as the new U.S. ambassador.

Talking the Talk

On May 20, President Bush delivered the first commencement speech of his presidency at Notre Dame University. Bush's address wasn't belated pay back for his ill-advised appearance at Bob Jones University during the Republican Party primaries last year. Nor was it a return to win-one-for-the-Gipper nostalgia. The president didn't even offer his usual assortment of self-deprecating jokes.

Instead, the president sought support for his faith-based initiative. The president invoked the name of the revered Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the compassionate Catholic Worker Movement, and praised the work of Catholic Charities. Bush told the 3,000 graduates and their families, that "welfare as we knew it has ended but poverty has not." He added, "much of today's poverty has more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy."

The subtext of the event was summed up by conservative columnist John Fund, who, on CNBC's Hardball, called the speech a "serious attempt" to go after the Catholic vote.

Hudson's May 2001 column in Crisis, the conservative Catholic monthly he edits, depicts Bush's actions as an "acceleration" of his Catholic strategy. The president has met with Archbishop Favalora in Miami, Bishop Wuerl in Pittsburgh, Cardinal Bevilacqua in Philadelphia and Archbishop Rigali in St. Louis. He celebrated St. Patrick's Day with Irish-American leaders and visited with participants in the Northern Ireland peace process. In late-March, the president presided over the opening of the John Paul II Cultural Center, a $65 million dollar facility in Washington, DC, which houses Vatican art and offers a research center for scholars. Will these visits bear fruit? In mid-June, according to the National Catholic Register, Cardinal Roger Mahony issued a statement on behalf of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Policy, reiterating their support for the president's faith-based initiative.

Hudson believes that conservative Catholics can attain the same level of political power evangelicals have. In Crisis he wrote: "This nation's evangelical leaders have successfully shaped a bloc with real power to deliver votes and affect policy. Bush's determination to connect with Catholics provides us with an opportunity to have similar clout."

By the Numbers

According to the 2001 Official Catholic Directory, there are nearly sixty-four million Catholics in the United States -- the nation's largest religious denomination. About 45 percent are registered voters. Although President Bush received only 47 percent of the Catholic vote, to Gore's 49 percent, Bush won support from 55 percent of practicing Catholics. The GOP's strategy is based on targeting observant Catholics.

Steven Wagner, head of QEV Analytics, told the National Catholic Register that President Bush's Catholic vote "matches Reagan's landslide in 1984 and almost matches Nixon's landslide in 1972." QEV is a public opinion research and communications strategy firm founded by Wagner in 1996. Wagner previously worked with Republican pollster Frank Luntz during the 1994 "Contract with America" campaign." Wagner's group was responsible for the groundbreaking 1998 Crisis magazine-commissioned "Report on the Catholic Vote in America."

The Catholic Alliance Lays the Groundwork

Over the past twenty years there have been a number of attempts to woo observant Catholics to the side of conservative candidates. The most successful of these efforts -- the conversion of large numbers white working class voters from loyalist Democrats to Reagan-Democrats -- has now achieved almost legendary status.

When evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants headed up initiatives to court Catholics, these efforts inflamed long-standing conflicts and antagonized Catholic officials. In 1995, when Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition made headlines with its highly publicized launch of the Catholic Alliance, reaction was swift. Press conferences were held and dozens of articles, both pro-and-con, were published. The liberal Interfaith Alliance trucked out a number of Catholic clergy "to expose the 'Catholic Alliance' as false advertising." The conservative publication First Things rebutted with " Truths and Untruths About the Catholic Alliance," in the hopes of containing the controversy.

Robertson, together with then Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, meant for the Alliance to become a haven for Catholics alienated by the liberal orthodoxy within the Catholic establishment. They envisioned a coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants. They hoped hot button issues of abortion and euthanasia would trump longtime Catholic concerns over economic justice and opposition to the death penalty. The Catholic Alliance never became as influential as Robertson and Reed had hoped. However, it laid the groundwork for what was to follow. (For more on the Catholic Alliance and CatholicVote.org, one of its key projects, check out its Web site at http://www.catholic.org/alliance/).

Things Have Changed

These days, it's not evangelical Protestants leading the way. Instead, politically savvy conservative Catholics with years of organizational experience and solid financial backing recently founded their own National Catholic Leadership Forum (NCLF).

According to the National Catholic Register, NCLF, which held its coming out party in late-April, in Washington, DC, aims to "encourage 'team leaders' to introduce Mass-attending Catholics to the Republican Party." At its inaugural meeting, Deal Hudson, a Baptist minister who converted to Catholicism, rallied the troops, telling them that the "time for talk is over. The time to organize Catholics behind the party of life -- that time has begun."

In the Spring 2001 issue of Political Research Associates' "The Public Eye," veteran journalist and right-wing watcher Fred Clarkson, puts the political role of the U.S. Catholic Church in perspective. He points out that historically the Church was careful about overplaying its hand for two reasons. "First, [it] sought to avoid arousing nativist anti-Catholic bigotry and second, it has sought to avoid the appearance of serving as a monolithic and authoritarian voting bloc in a pluralist society." Now, writes Clarkson, the "Catholic Right [is] developing and promoting a long-term, fundamental approach to the practice of faith that links political involvement with faith itself."

"Conservative appointees of Pope John Paul II" writes Clarkson, "now dominate the American Catholic leadership." This was clear in 1998, when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops urged Catholics to make decisions on which candidate to vote for based on "a politician's stances on abortion and euthanasia over the many other, sometimes progressive public policy views of the church." In addition, younger more conservative priests are replacing older more liberal ones. Clarkson also notes that conservative Catholics are building effective right-wing interest groups, such as the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Opus Dei, Legionnaires of Christ, a Mexico-based order which publishes the conservative National Catholic Register, and the relatively new Priests for Life.

In June 1999, in a follow-up to his earlier report QEV's Steven Wagner describes two competing Catholic groups. The first group, "Social-Justice Catholics," support activist government, multiculturalism, self-identify as liberal, and are critical of America's minimalist efforts on behalf of the poor and minorities. The second group, "Social Renewal Catholics," opposes the social-justice agenda, believe in "an absolute standard of morality," think government intervention hastens the decline in individual morality, and feel "popular culture is undermining the character of our youth."

In the October 2000 issue of The American Spectator, William Donohue, founder and chairman of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said, "Any candidate for public office who seeks the Catholic vote must distinguish between practicing and non-practicing Catholics. Once he does, he quickly learns that the former are more numerous than the latter. More important, practicing Catholics tend to be conservative on moral issues." A QEV-conducted survey, confirms Donohue's assertion finding that of the 1,001 people interviewed, 62 percent supported the social renewal position while only 35 percent supported the social-justice perspective.

Social Renewal Catholics occasionally take their issues further than the party regulars would prefer. Witness their current effort to have the Pope excommunicate a group of Catholic pro-abortion governors and senators, most of whom are Democrats. WorldNetDaily, a conservative online publication, reported in early July that Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, William Cotter, president of Operation Rescue-Boston, and Tim Chichester, executive director of Yankee Samizdat, are circulating their petition "A Canonical Petition to Excommunicate Culture of Death 'Catholics.'" With 2,000 signatures already gathered -- on the way to a hoped-for 100,000 -- the group intends to present it to the Pope in the near future.

While recent surveys indicate Catholic voters might be open to the GOP's message, ultraconservative shenanigans like the petition to the Pope could make its job more difficult. Nevertheless, the party is loading up its wagons and setting off on its ambitious recruitment tour. With the capable Hudson in charge of Catholic outreach, the newly formed National Catholic Leadership Forum in place and President Bush ready and willing to schmooze, Republicans are locked and loaded in search of the Catholic vote.

Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based free lance writer covering the Religious Right and related cpnservative movements.

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