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 Washington Notebook

May 26, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 20

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

"I don't feel at home in either party."

Bill Murray,
a 61-year-old Quaker from Durham, N.C.

 

Faith-based anti-poverty workers seek political home; Mark Shields at the Catholic Press Association

By Joe Feuerherd

It's a good bet that the vast majority of the 300-plus Christian social activists who gathered in Washington May 23-25 will vote for John Kerry in November. The signs were evident.

Bush spokesman Alfonso Jackson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was coolly greeted. His personal up-from-poverty story fell flat with an audience that viewed the administration's domestic agenda as an abandonment of the federal government's commitment to the poor.

His remarks concluded, Jackson darted for the door. An impertinent audience member jumped up. What is the Bush administration going to do for the young woman the audience member talked with the previous evening -- a full-time worker by day who prostitutes herself at night because she needs the money to feed and clothe her child?

The HUD secretary, halfway between the podium and the exit, responded. "The question you should ask is what can you do for her?" A collective groan from the audience ensued as Jackson quickly made his way to the hotel lobby.

Kerry stand-in Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., by contrast, got a standing ovation. Her harsh critique of the administration's domestic agenda -- tax cuts aimed disproportionately at the wealthy, cuts in housing and Medicaid, deficits that starve the federal treasury, punitive welfare reform -- was just what the audience of church-based anti-poverty workers wanted to hear. The Bush administration, said DeLauro, "has transferred the nation's tax burden from corporations and the wealthy to people who work for a living."

But the "Call to Unity to Make Poverty Reduction a Religious and Electoral Issue" -- a three-day conference sponsored by Washington-based "Call to Renewal" -- exposed some fissures between the faith-based left and the Democratic Party.

The week prior to the Call to Unity meeting, DeLauro and 47 other Catholic House Democrats wrote Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, telling him that the growing movement to deny Communion to Catholic legislators who favor abortion-rights is "counterproductive and would bring great harm to the church." The legislators asked to meet with McCarrick, who chairs a committee of bishops drafting guidance for members of the hierarchy in their dealings with Catholic politicians.

Following DeLauro's prepared remarks, Tom Allio, diocesan social action director in Cleveland, stood before the microphone and thanked her for her efforts. "I believe you're going to have a constructive dialogue" with McCarrick, said Allio. The Eucharist, he continued, should not be used as a "weapon" against Catholic legislators. The crowd applauded; DeLauro nodded appreciatively.

But then Allio asked the divisive question. Would DeLauro, chair of a committee working on the Democratic Party Platform, "call for a dialogue with John Kerry on his abortion-on-demand" position? The unborn, said Allio, represent society's "most vulnerable" and abortion is a "fundamental human dignity issue."

It was the second time in as many days that abortion disrupted the unity of the gathering.

"Some want us to believe," said Call to Renewal convener Jim Wallis, that the only issues that matter to the religious community are those "having to do with sex," such as gay marriage and abortion. Others say "I have faith but don't worry because it won't affect anything." Wallis is editor of Sojourners magazine and a long-time activist.

While calling for an ecumenical commitment to the eradication of poverty, Wallis said many of those present, hostile to Republican anti-government policies and Democratic intransigence on abortion, lacked "a natural political home."

Pro-life Democrats, Wallis told NCR, are an "endangered species." The Republican Party is "much less dismissive" of those -- such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani -- who dissent from the party's general consensus on the issue. "The Democrats should be at least as ecumenical on abortion as the Republicans are," said Wallis, and create "some room" in the party for those who disagree with the majority.

DeLauro, meanwhile, dodged Allio's question. Forcefully articulate on tax cuts, day care, health care and welfare, she was less focused and precise on abortion, uncomfortable, it seemed, in airing disagreements among friends.

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When it comes to abortion, she responded, legislators have an obligation to those they represent; she had recently re-read former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's 1984 speech on the subject; politicians should be reluctant to impose their deeply held personal beliefs on others; Democrats have "a great respect for the dignity of life" as evidenced by their positions on war, the death penalty and social justice.

"I don't feel at home in either party," said Bill Murray, a 61-year-old Quaker from Durham, N.C. Republicans "give lip service to the abortion thing," while Democrats "are a little less tied into the corporate culture" that dominates American culture and politics, he said. On the issues, said Murray, he's most comfortable with Ralph Nader, but he won't be voting for the independent candidate. Such a vote could help re-elect Bush, said Murray.

Political homelessness notwithstanding, he'll be voting for Kerry.

*****

Meanwhile, nearly 400 Catholic journalists are gathered in Washington May 26-28 for the Catholic Press Association's annual convention. First order of business: a sidesplitting and informative briefing from syndicated columnist Mark Shields.

First, the humor.

  • Former Senator Alan Simpson when asked his church preference, "had the political courage to answer red brick."
  • Shields most recently ran into his colleague, conservative columnist Pat Buchanan, at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Chevy Chase where the one-time presidential candidate was picking up his "man of the year award from the Friends of the Spanish Inquisition."
  • Shields recently contemplated the legacy of three presidents. "George Washington, who couldn't tell a lie; Richard Nixon, who couldn't tell the truth; and Bill Clinton, who couldn't tell the difference."
  • Newt Gingrich asked Colin Powell why people take such an instant dislike to him. "It saves them time," responded Powell.
  • The Bush campaign will have to explain how it has presided over an administration "that has created more gay weddings than jobs" during the president's term.
  • On the military's don't ask don't tell policy. "It's okay if Uncle Sam wants you, but if you want Uncle Sam keep it to yourself."

Ba da bum.

More seriously, Shields discussed the presidential race, with a focus on the post-Sept. 11 political environment.

First, Bush benefits because Sept. 11 closed the "stature gap." Bush, said Shields, had virtually no foreign policy experience when he ran in 2000 ("word was he thought Fetticini Alfredo was the prime minister of Italy"). That is no longer the case.

Next, "the presidency itself becomes a more important office" during such turbulent times. "Its the voice most Americans are willing to listen to."

Finally, the role of commander-in-chief, downgraded in the post-Cold War world, is now considered essential by the voters who will choose either Bush or Kerry.

And, as one might imagine in a group of Catholic journalists, the Democratic Party's entrenched pro-choice position came in for some discussion.

Shields, a self-proclaimed pro-lifer, offered little hope that the Democratic Party would be welcoming of pro-lifers in its leadership anytime soon, though the prospect of pro-life Republican John McCain on a Kerry ticket would be "precedent breaking."

And Shields was critical of the way some bishops have handled this issue.

"It's terrible to see what some of the bishops have done," said Shields. Their vocal opposition to abortion combined with relative silence on economic and justice issues "is translated to the lay world to mean that life begins at conception and ends at birth."

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

 
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