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 Washington Notebook

August 11, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 28

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"An American’s denomination and their “religiosity” – defined as how often a person participates in church services – is an incredibly strong predictor of how you behave politically.  But there are some exceptions."

Anna Greenberg
Vice President
Greenberg Quinlan
Rosner Research


Catholic League Targets Kerry Outreach; Former Governor Davis on Consistency; Poll Results; What Would Clinton Do?

By Joe Feuerherd

The Kerry campaign has a gang-that-can’t-shoot-straight quality when it comes to outreach to the religious community, the net result of which is that they hurt their friends and give credibility to their critics.

The August 4 resignation of Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson from her post as Director of Religious Outreach at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the most recent example. Soon after her appointment, the New York-based Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights revealed that Peterson had joined 31 other religious leaders in filing a friend of the court brief in support of removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. (Kerry, by the way, supports keeping “under God” in the Pledge.)

Officially Peterson jumped, telling Religious News Service that it was “no longer possible for me to do my job effectively.” But it sure sounds like she was pushed.

Previously, the Kerry campaign silenced religious outreach coordinator Mara Vanderslice after the Catholic League issued press releases which labeled her soft on anti-Catholicism because she had engaged in civil disobedience with, among others, the AIDS activist organization, Act-UP.  

Perhaps the DNC and the Kerry campaign should have never hired Peterson or Vanderslice. And, God knows, there’s truth to the idea that Kerry doesn’t need more distractions related to religion. But to give the press-release-machine of the Catholic League veto power over Democratic campaign staff strikes some as, at best, an overreaction; to others, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the Catholic community and its influential players.

In the midst of its flurry of press releases condemning Peterson and Vanderslice, for example, the Catholic League was apparently undisturbed by the Republican National Committee’s efforts to secure Catholic parish directories and membership lists. "Access to these directories is critical as it allows us to identify and contact those Catholics who are likely to be supportive of President Bush's compassionate conservative agenda,” Martin J. Gillespie, Director of Catholic Outreach at the RNC, told Catholic Republican “team leaders.”

No statements were issued by the League condemning or questioning that practice.

Still, Catholic League president William Donohue said in an Aug. 5 press release, “we’re certainly monitoring Bush and the RNC … just as closely.”

Yeah, right.


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Former California Governor Gray Davis, holding court in the lobby of the Westin Copley Place Hotel on the day prior to Kerry’s acceptance speech, wouldn’t take the bait.

“Are the bishops giving Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani a pass on abortion?” NCR asked Davis, a pro-choice Catholic who tangled with Sacramento bishop William Weigand over the issue during his shortened tenure in the state house. Weigand suggested that pro-choice Catholic politicians refrain from taking communion. The current California governor, his New York state counterpart, and the former New York Mayor, pro-choice Catholics all, are scheduled to address the Republican convention.

“It’s the same issue, so presumably the church will take a consistent position across the board,” said Davis.

“Sharon [Davis’ wife] and I take our faith seriously,” said Davis, but his belief in separation of church and state, and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, explain his support for abortion-rights, he said.


Only 40 percent of Catholics know that John Kerry is Catholic.

That was among the findings Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, revealed July 27 at the Wesley Theological Seminary “God Gap” symposium.

An American’s denomination and their “religiosity” – defined as how often a person participates in church services – “is an incredibly strong predictor of how you behave politically,” said Greenberg. But there are some exceptions.

Catholic Hispanics, for example, generally “don’t care as much about social issues” such as abortion as other Catholics, regardless of the frequency of their church attendance. While white Catholics who attend church weekly support George W. Bush by large numbers, the same is not true of Hispanics. In current polls, Bush is getting approximately 30 percent of the Hispanic vote, down from the 35 percent he received in 2000.

Bush and Kerry are a mirror image when it comes to religious fervency, said Greenberg. Polls show the president getting nearly 60 percent of those who say they attend church services frequently, while Kerry is getting a like percentage from those who rarely attend worship services. 

Meanwhile, Kerry pollster Mark Mellman told a National Jewish Democratic Council meeting that despite Bush’s pro-Israel record and rhetoric, Kerry will get the lion’s share of the community’s vote, though it will be hard to match Al Gore’s 2000 totals. Gore, running with the first Jewish major party nominee, Joe Lieberman, got eighty percent of the Jewish vote in the last election.

While there is debate in the Jewish community over Bush’s support for Israel, other issues that favor Kerry – such as separation of church and state and abortion-rights – are of greater concern to Jews, particularly because John Kerry is seen as a strong supporter of Israel, panelists at the session agreed.


Some Kerry advisers argue that his campaign should largely ignore issues related to religion – that there is no winning on this front. Others, like former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, say he needs a plan to address the religious sensibilities of swing voters, particularly Catholics (Washington Notebook, July 28).

Perhaps, quite literally, Kerry should take a page from Clinton’s book.

In his recently released memoir, My Life, the former president describes (pages 428-429) how he tackled the issue.

“On September 11 [1992], I went to South Bend, Indiana, to deliver an address to the students and faculty at Notre Dame, America’s most famous Catholic university. On the same day, President Bush was in Virginia to address the conservative Christian Coalition. I knew Catholics across the country would take notice of both events. The church hierarchy agreed with Bush’s opposition to abortion, but I was far closer to the Catholic positions on economic and social justice. The Notre Dame appearance bore a striking resemblance, with roles reversed, to John Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Southern Baptist ministers. Paul Begala, a devout Catholic, helped prepare my remarks, and Boston mayor Ray Flynn and Senator Harris Wofford came along to lend moral support. I was nearly halfway thought the speech before I could tell how it was going. When I said, ‘All of us must respect the reflection of God’s image in every man and woman, and so we must value their freedom, not just their political freedom, but their freedom of conscience in matters of family and philosophy and faith,’ there was a standing ovation.”

Who knows? Might just work again.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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