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 Washington Notebook

September 1, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 31

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

"Priests have wide latitude in discussing issues that are of importance in an election. I think there's nothing wrong with priests counseling their parishioners [about] certain nonnegotiable issues in the church and that as faithful Catholics they need to consider those issues when selecting candidates."

Leonard Leo,
the new head of "Catholic Outreach" at the Republican National Committee

 

Federalist Society lawyer named to Catholic outreach; Non-negotiable issues tallied; Door left open at 'Faith and Family' event; Movie premier; Church attendance voting patterns debunked

By Joe Feuerherd

Washington Notebook is at the Republican National Convention.

NEW YORK -- The combined vote of "faithful Catholics" and "swing Catholics" will decide which presidential candidate wins a majority of the nation's 25 million Catholic voters. And perhaps the election.

That's the view of attorney Leonard Leo, the new head of "Catholic Outreach" at the Republican National Committee. Leo succeeds Crisis magazine publisher Deal Hudson, who resigned the post Aug. 18 after acknowledging having had a sexual relationship with an undergraduate student while he was teaching at Fordham University (NCR, Aug. 27).

"There are two key elements to the Catholic vote," Leo told NCR. "There are 'faithful Catholics,' by which I mean Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week and who believe in the magisterium of the church and the fundamental doctrines of the church."

The second group, Leo continued, are "swing Catholics," who may be less devout but remain sympathetic to church teaching on a range of social issues.

"Swing Catholics and faithful Catholics are often in accord on a number of the 'culture of life' issues," said Leo, "and I suspect that it is this combination of voters which will be pivotal in deciding who controls the Catholic vote in this election." He continued, "For example they are united on the issue of whether it is a good idea to have liberal federal judges who use the law as a means of rejecting traditional values."

Leo spoke from the third floor lobby of Park Avenue's Waldorf Astoria, where, inside the adjoining ballroom, hundreds of delegates and Bush enthusiasts were hearing from former Christian Coalition president Ralph Reed and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. Judicial nominations are something Leo, a Cornell law school graduate and Arlington, Va., diocese parishioner knows something about. As executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, the 39-year-old attorney has played a key role in promoting and defending conservative federal judicial nominees against opposition from liberal interest groups and Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

His first goal as coordinator (Leo eschewed a formal title when he took the post) of the Republican National Committee's Catholic Outreach "is to inspire and motivate Catholics to be an important part of the political process," said Leo, a member of the Knights of Malta. "It's their obligation and their vocation in many respects."

But with less than two months until Election Day, there are some more immediate concerns. "It is important to communicate to Catholic voters where this president has been on issues of interest and concern to Catholics -- issues involving the 'culture of life' for example."

"I think it's important that we inspire and motivate Catholics to go out and support our president, who has been a very faithful advocate for nonnegotiable issues in the church [such as] abortion, marriage, cloning, and other culture of life issues like that."

Leo favors an aggressive approach to Catholics, thinks Democratic nominee John Kerry will not necessarily have an advantage among his coreligionists, and supports involvement by churches and pastors in the political process.

  • "If it took place I would have no problem with it," he said of Republican National Committee efforts to gather parish directories and membership lists in order to target Catholic voters. "We reach out to all sorts of people in different ways. I see no problem with any groups reaching out to Catholics and trying to urge them to be an active part of the political process."
  • On Kerry's Catholicism. "There was a time when the fact that [a candidate] was a Catholic meant something to a voter and may have driven them to vote for that candidate. My sense is that voters today are more sophisticated -- they look behind the label. In the case of Sen. Kerry, I think Catholic voters will look not simply to the label, but to whether he has embraced the fundamental truths of the Roman Catholic church as a public leader. Many Catholics will conclude that he is not a candidate who is embracing the Catholic perspective on those issues and they will vote against him."
  • "Priests have wide latitude in discussing issues that are of importance in an election. I think there's nothing wrong with priests counseling their parishioners [about] certain nonnegotiable issues in the church and that as faithful Catholics they need to consider those issues when selecting candidates."
  • Leo, along with Wall Street Journal Web editor James Taranto, is coeditor of a recently released book, Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and Worst in the White House. Contributing essays to the book are such conservative luminaries as Robert Bork, Kenneth Starr, Peggy Noonan, John McCain, and Paul Johnson.

    *****

    Speaking of "nonnegotiable" issues, the California-based group Catholic Answers has produced a Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics, which is getting wide distribution in conservative parishes. The 10-page pamphlet identifies five "nonnegotiable" issues - abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem cell research, human cloning and gay marriage. The guide says that "candidates who endorse or promote any of the five should be considered to have disqualified themselves from holding public office, and you should not vote for them."

    The group purchased a full-page ad in USA Today Aug. 31 to promote the guide. A million copies of the guide have already been distributed, says Catholic Answers, "with millions more planned in the next two months."

    The booklet advises Catholic voters to "eliminate from consideration candidates who are wrong on any of the nonnegotiable issues." It continues, "No matter how right they may be on other issues, they should be considered disqualified if they are wrong on even one of the nonnegotiables."

    A quick review of the presidential candidates' positions on these issues might leave a serious Catholic wondering what to do. Both Bush and Kerry support embryonic stem cell research (though the president would confine it to existing stem cell lines and Kerry would aggressively fund such research); Kerry is pro-choice, while the president favors abortion exceptions for rape and incest (which the booklet says are not supportable because "the fault is not the child's, who should not suffer death for others' sins.")

    Both Kerry and the president oppose gay marriage and cloning. And who knows about euthanasia?

    So, having "eliminated" both candidates from contention based on the scorecard, what's a serious Catholic to do? Luckily, "eliminate" doesn't really mean eliminate. "In some political races, each candidate takes a wrong position on one or more of the five nonnegotiables. In such a case you may vote for the candidate who takes the fewest such positions or who seems least likely to be able to advance immoral legislation."

    *****

    As Leo and I spoke outside the closed doors of the Waldorf ballroom, former Christian Coalition President Ralph Reed and Sen. Sam Brownback were rallying the Christian/Republican faithful inside. No press was allowed to attend the "Faith, Family and Freedom" event.

    But, as luck would have it, the organizers failed to close a door located in a hallway off the main entrance. There were tables and chairs right outside that door. It was too tempting. So I (and another banned colleague) took the seats and pulled out our notebooks.

    The master of ceremonies acknowledged some of the religious and political leaders present, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, Bush administration Faith Based Initiative director Jim Towey, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell among them. President Bush appeared by video.

    He spoke of his desire to "strengthen our shared values" and promote a "culture of life where every child is born into a loving family protected by law." He pledged to "defend the sacred bond of marriage" against "a few activist judges." He noted that he had defended "the sanctity of human life" through support for antiabortion legislation.

    Bush defended his position on embryonic stem cell research: "Life is a creation of God, not a commodity to be exploited by man."

    Democratic nominee John Kerry, the president reminded the audience, "has his own views" on these issues. Bush noted that Kerry voted against a ban on "partial birth abortions" and other antiabortion measures. Kerry voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, said Bush.

    Conservative activist Ralph Reed said the 2004 election presents the "starkest contrast" between two candidates since 1972. "We love George Bush," said Reed. "He's a good man, he's a great leader, he's a terrific president, and we're going to do whatever we have to do to see that he remains in that office," said Reed. The audience cheered.

    And then a polite Bush campaign staffer shut the door and asked us to move along. Which we did.

    *****

    "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House" is a 70-minute documentary funded by Ted Beckett, a Colorado real estate developer and conservative Christian activist. The film debuted at the Republican National Convention, across the street from Madison Square Garden in a conference room at the New Yorker Hotel.

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    The producers hope that thousands of evangelical and other Christian churches will purchase it between now and Election Day and show it to their congregations.

    It's an odd movie. Critics of the president -- such as Sojourners magazine editor Jim Wallis, Americans United for Separation of Church and State director Barry Lynn, comedian Al Franken, and Ralph Nader -- are the straw men. Previous statements of theirs critical of Bush's approach to religion and politics are read by actors. Lynn, Franken and Nader sound somewhat depraved, but the Wallis imitation seemed right-on.

    We see young George W. being baptized, but it is disconcerting to see actors portraying Barbara and George H.W. Bush -- people whose faces and mannerisms we know so well. We see young George W. trying to cheer up his mother after the death of his sister. And so on and on.

    Onscreen interviews with Bush supporters in the religious community are included -- no voice-overs necessary here. Among those praising the president's faith are Dr. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians, religious broadcaster James Robison, and Doug Wead, former special assistant to George H.W. Bush and a friend of the current president.

    The Catholic viewpoint is presented by Crisis magazine publisher Deal Hudson, who says that people who meet with the president are "immediately won over by the sincerity of his faith." Bush, says Hudson, is the "perfect mediator between mainstream evangelicals and Catholics."

    We learn that Bush grew up in a religious (Presbyterian) home; that he was affected by the death of his three-year-old sister; and that he "drank, smoked, chewed and cussed" until his 40th birthday, when he turned his life over to Christ. He is a great leader who, in his private moments, reads the Bible and prays. His faith is sincere and a good thing for the country. He loves Laura (who is presented as a supportive but not too pushy wife) and she loves him. They both love their children.

    The DVD is scheduled for release Oct. 5 so it can go "head to head" with the video release of "Fahrenheit 9/11." From an artistic point-of-view, Michael Moore has little to worry about. But this isn't about art.

    Bush political strategist Karl Rove argues that 4 million of the president's most likely supporters -- white evangelical Christians -- did not go to the polls in 2000. If this $300,000 movie motivates a good number of those potential voters on Election Day, particularly those in battleground states, that will be victory enough for its producers.

    *****

    It's become part of the conventional wisdom of this campaign: Voters who attend religious services weekly are more likely to vote Republican. Right?

    Well, maybe.

    One problem with this theory is that people tend to tell pollsters that they go to church a lot more than they actually do, Shaun Casey, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, told an Aug. 30 panel on religion and politics. Though there is "probably some validity" to the idea that frequency of church attendance is an indicator of conservative political views, the "God gap" has been overplayed, said Casey.

    He cited findings from a recent Pew Foundation survey to back up his assertions.

    Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta agreed, saying the gap is largely a media-driven phenomenon. "The American public does not perceive that to be religious is to be conservative," said Podesta.

    Meanwhile, Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the Democrat Party has another problem: catering to the 15 percent of its core constituency that identifies itself as rabidly "secularist" or "anti-fundamentalist" while avoiding the perception that the party is "hostile to religion."

    One short-term result of that balancing act, said Cromartie, is that a growing number of socially conservative Catholics "are really on the fence and moving toward George Bush."

    Well, maybe.

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

     
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