Catholic conundrum: Conservatives like Obama
Obama’s choice of Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius to be HHS secretary was long-rumored after Tom Daschle’s withdrawal. But now that it’s a fact it is likely to set off another round of the Catholic Culture Wars, since Sebelius is a practicing Catholic (as best she can, I suppose, as her archbishop barred her from communion) and supports abortion rights.
National Catholic Reporter has an article on 26 prominent Catholics who have signed a letter in support of Sebelius–including Commonweal’s own Margaret O’Brien Steinfels. The signers point to Sebelius’ support for universal health care (where she has serious chops) and her “successful efforts at reducing abortion in Kansas.” They also note that abortions in Kansas declined by 10 percent during her time as governor. Among other things, Sebelius:
–Signed the Senator Stan Clark Pregnancy Maintenance Initiative Program, a bill which funded support services for pregnant women and alternatives to abortion;
–Signed Alexa’s Law, to deal with certain crimes against unborn children, which defines an unborn child as a fetus at any state of gestation from fertilization to birth. As a result, if a pregnant woman was murdered, the offender could be charged with the murder of the unborn child as well;
–Signed a law doubling the adoption tax credit and oversaw an expansion of adoption support spending in Kansas from $17,566,288 in 2003 to a projected $23,279,623 in 2008;
–And oversaw a decline in teen pregnancies between 2002 and 2007.
So what’s not to like? Well, Bill Donohue at the Catholic League finds plenty. His statement is likely representative of many pro-life groups: “As I said last night on the CBS Evening News, ‘She is the champion of abortion rights right through term, and for Obama to choose somebody who sews such division within the Catholic community to head HHS really is an insult to Catholics.’ ”
Donohue says of Obama and the Catholic vote: the Sebelius pick “will cost him.” But will it?
John Green’s article on the 2008 vote in the March First Things, “What Happened to the Values Voter?” includes the surprising revelation (to me) that Obama “did better with the Traditionalists than with the Centrist Catholics [Green's longstanding labels, which of course have other unfortunate resonances intra ecclesia] and markedly better than Kerry’s one-fifth in 2004.”
“This result is a surprise,” Green writes, “being the only instance where a group of Traditionalists voted more Democratic than their Centrist coreligionists” in other faith groups.
That’s weird. Green suspects that conservative Catholic opposition to the Iraq War and torture and such may have been factors, and notes that “Centrist” Catholics can be more conservative economically. That doesn’t seem sufficient to explain this puzzle, to me, and I think Mark Silk’s analysis may be more on target:
Let me offer, instead, the hypothesis that the swing towards Obama among Traditionalist Catholics had less to do with the circumstances of the 2008 election than with their antipathy to voting for a pro-choice Catholic in 2004. In fact, this voting bloc swung heavily away from the Democratic candidate (to the tune of 17 points) between 2000 and 2004. So in November they more or less reverted to their 2000 voting pattern.
If I’m right and Traditionalist Catholics have more of a problem voting for a pro-choice Catholic than a pro-choice non-Catholic, that’s both good and bad news for conservative Catholic hierarchs and intellectuals. On the one hand, it suggests that the message that Catholic politicians should be pro-life (delivered delicately if unmistakably by the pope to Speaker Pelosi yesterday) has definitely gotten through to the old-time faithful. On the other, it indicates that such Catholics understand this to be less a natural law injunction incumbent on all members of society than a religious obligation for their own kind. That a staunch pro-choicer like Obama can garner two out of every five Traditionalist White Catholic votes helps makes sense of the high pro-life anxiety that seems to have taken hold in so many episcopal breasts.