For US Catholics Obama is still The One

Following the result of the US presidential election and the referendum results for same-sex marriage it is about time that the Catholic Church in the United States takes urgent stock of the fact that its faithful’s relationship with religion has changed. Two considerations led me to this conclusion.

Is religion or ethnicity the stronger motive that drives people to action in the public sphere?
- Fr Joe Borg

The so-called Catholic vote, as has consistently happened over the past 40 years, went for the victor. Some polls gave Barack Obama 50 per cent of the Catholic vote while 48 per cent were called for Mitt Romney.

On the other hand, the Evangelical vote was solidly Romney’s. This result was interpreted as a sign that Catholics ignored the advice given by several bishops, albeit in an indirect way by some, to vote against Obama.

Some bishops did not mince words. Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria compared Obama to Hitler and Stalin. Two weeks before Americans went to the polls, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, warned Catholics that voting for Obama and the Democrats “could put your own soul in jeopardy”. Most bishops did not engage in this kind of ‘electoral discourse’, but it is always those who give the sexiest sound bites that get most publicity.

Another significant development was the vote in favour of same-sex marriages. Voters in Maine, Washington and Maryland upheld legalising same-sex marriage, thus giving popular support to the decisions taken by the legislative assemblies.

Voters in Minnesota rejected a proposed amendment to the State Constitution that would have defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman, thus now paving the way for same-sex marriage.

It is true that the margins were quite close but it is important to note that these votes are a reversal of the trend registered in the 32 state referendums that have been held since 1998 when voters opted for a man-woman marriage.

Last May, North Carolinians, for example, approved by a 61-39 per cent margin a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. This time round the trend is diametrically opposite.

The Catholic bishops had campaigned vigorously against same-sex marriage but the majority of voters were of a different opinion. The disappointment of the bishops is, quite naturally, huge.

Figures can always be interpreted in more than one way. This instance is no exception, and consolation is there to be found. The number of Catholic voters for Obama was smaller than that registered in the 2008 election. One can perhaps say there were Catholics who heeded the appeal of their bishops.

What does all this point to?

An analysis based on the belief that there is a monolithic Catholic vote would lead to mistaken results. Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, was correct in pointing out that there are four Catholic votes: practising and non-practising; white and Latino. Romney had a majority of practising Catholics while Obama had the majority of the non-practising ones). This is some consolation for the bishops.

But consider that 42 per cent of practising Catholics voted for Obama. This is not a statistic to sweep under the carpet!

White Catholics voted for Romney while Latino Catholics voted for Obama. It is also true, though, that whites voted for Romney and Latinos voted for Obama independently of their religious affiliation. Is religion or ethnicity the stronger motive that drives people to action in the public sphere?

The result of the election and the referendums will undoubtedly be high on the agenda of the bishops who are meeting in Baltimore for their annual assembly.

Denial and anger are two very common reactions to such disappointing results.

The first reaction would see bishops totting together the No votes with the number of those who abstained, thus reaching the conclusion that neither Obama nor same sex-marriage have the support of the absolute majority. This is what unfortunately happened in Malta after the divorce referendum.

The bishops who took an assertive (not to say aggressive) stance could point an accusing finger at the bishops who took a conciliatory stand. Had you been as aggressive as we were, they could say, we would have had a better result.

An opposite explanation could be given, though. It was the conciliatory bishops who had the more positive reaction. The others clearly did not alienate Catholics from Obama and probably alienated Catholics from the Church. This attitude of denial of the change the country experiences would lead the bishops nowhere good.

The bishops could take to task those Catholics who defended Obama. In fact, a Catholics for Obama lobby was active throughout the campaign. Indeed, just a few days before the election, Catholic scholars and political activists Ed Gaffney, Douglas Kmiec and Patrick Whelan published America Undecided: Why Obama Deserves a Second Term. Theirs was a final combined attempt to persuade wavering Catholics that Obama was the Catholics’ best bet for the advancement of the Catholic social agenda in the next four years.

Kmiec is well-known in Malta having served as the US Ambassador. No one doubts his Catholic pedigree. I cannot comment on the others as I know close to nothing about them.

An interesting appraisal of the book can be found on .

The Catholic Health Association and the Leadership of Catholic Women Religious also had a different – at least strategic – position from that of most bishops.

This does not in any way prove that the bishops are wrong and the others are in the right. It shows that among the 42 per cent of practising Catholics who preferred Obama one finds many who, besides being very good Catholics, also have great worth and acumen.

I suggest that instead of getting angry with them and accusing them of dividing the Church a concerted effort should be made by all camps to understand each other and to build bridges.

One final point… A studied analysis of the situation should, I believe, help the bishops conclude that if they want changes on the political level they should work for changes at the cultural level. This is where battles and lost and won today.

(Note: Any similarity between the analysis of the situation in the US and the Maltese situation is not coincidental.)

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