National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

?Sign Up Here For Weekly E-mail

 1 Archives  | 

 Washington Notebook

September 15, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 33

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"The pope opposes the war on religious ground. Does that make him a surrogate for John Kerry?"

Jim Wallis of Sojourners


Kerry and the Catholic speech; Religious groups deny they are surrogates; Bishops questionnaire withdrawn

By Joe Feuerherd

Should John Kerry find a Catholic backdrop to deliver a speech explaining the role faith plays in his public life? How his Catholicism informs his policy positions? Why he, and not George W. Bush, deserves the Catholic vote?

Influential voices in the Kerry political brain trust are pushing for just such an approach, according to sources familiar with the thinking of the campaign's "People of Faith" team. They're eyeing John Carroll University in Cleveland as a venue. Jesuit Fr. Edward Glynn, the university's president, says he'd welcome any of the presidential or vice presidential candidates on campus, though no request has yet been made.

And it's no accident that attention is focused on Ohio -- a key battleground state where 20 percent of the electorate is Catholic. No Republican has won the presidency without carrying the Buckeye State, where President Bush currently leads in the polls.

Such a speech would quickly draw comparisons to John F. Kennedy's visit to the lion's den in 1960. On Sept. 12 of that year, before hundreds of Protestant ministers at the Houston Ministerial Alliance, Kennedy famously declared that he believed "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him."

Kennedy's challenge was to convince Protestant Americans that he would not be taking orders from the pope or the bishops. He succeeded.

Kerry's challenge is different, and perhaps more difficult. He needs to convince swing-state "Reagan Democrats," many of them Catholic, that his liberal views on social issues (of which abortion is the leading indicator) should not lead them to automatically reject his candidacy.

E-mail Alerts
To receive an e-mail notice when Washington Notebook is posted every week, Click on the link at the top right of this page to send the column to a friend or colleague.
The mix of religion and politics is a minefield, as the pro-choice Kerry discovered when a number of U.S. bishops said they'd turn him away if he presented himself for Commuion. That flap has hurt Kerry among Catholics, Fritz Wenzel, senior political writer at the Zogby International polling firm, told Catholic News Service.

Catholic voters in key swing states moved increasingly toward Bush just as the Communion-watch controversy reached fever pitch, said Wenzel. While the vast majority of Catholics oppose the idea of denying communion to pro-choice politicians, the controversy highlighted Kerry's pro-choice stance, said Wenzel. "Denying Communion is a whole different issue than abortion, but it made people aware of (the candidates') positions," Wenzel said. "It's like a potato chip that's the conveyor for the salt."

Among those who think a carefully calibrated speech could dodge the mines and prove a winner for Kerry is Shaun Casey, assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

Casey, who is writing a history of the 1960 campaign, sees parallels between Kennedy's approach and Kerry's challenge. On a panel about religion and politics held in conjunction with the Democratic convention in July, Casey said the U.S. bishops' statement "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility" provides a roadmap for such an address. With its emphasis on a wide range of issues, said Casey, "This is a campaign speech waiting to be written."

Among those supporting the idea of a Kerry speech geared to Catholics are former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, Mara Vanderslice, the Kerry-Edwards campaign's People of Faith coordinator, and former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry. McCurry recently took on a high-profile campaign role as a member of the team that is negotiating the structure of the upcoming presidential debates with Bush representatives.

A Kerry spokesperson, meanwhile, dodged the question of whether such a speech is in the offing. "We don't discuss John Kerry's schedule until it is released to the public," said campaign spokesperson Jin Chon.


Speaking of Shaun Casey, the Wesley Theological Seminary professor was on another panel held in conjunction with the Republican National Convention. There, Casey said the Bush campaign cleverly uses "surrogates" to deliver controversial messages to the religious community. Foremost among them, said Casey, is the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

If the Catholic League is a "surrogate," responded Casey's co-panelist, Ethics and Public Policy Center vice president Michael Cromartie, then so is Sojourners, the Washington-based Christian ministry that aims to "proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice."

Casey was asked on what basis he judged that the Catholic League, like Sojourners a non-profit institution forbidden to participate in partisan activity, to be supportive of Republicans. Just look at their website, he replied.

And so I did. And then I called the League's president, Bill Donohue, and had a conversation with Jim Wallis, who founded Sojourners more than three decades ago.

On the League's website, 12 of 24 press releases issued between July 2 and Sept. 8 are explicitly critical of John Kerry or Democrats. None challenge President Bush or the Republican Party. Among those releases were four in which Donohue criticized the appointment of the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson as senior religion advisor to the Democratic National Committee. Peterson invoked Donohue's wrath because she signed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Michael Newdow, the California atheist who argued that "under God" should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance.

She resigned her DNC position shortly after Donohue began his campaign against her.

Previously, in late June, Donohue criticized the Kerry campaign for hiring Mara Vanderslice as director of religious outreach. Vanderslice kept her job, but plans to make her the campaign's public point person on religious issues were shelved by the Kerry campaign.

Donohue, however, denies he's in the tank for the Bush campaign.

"Clearly I'm not an enthusiast for Kerry these days," Donohue told NCR, citing the senator's pro-abortion rights views. "But I don't trust the Republicans" and "I'm not interested in making the Catholic League an analog to the Christian Coalition, which is the Christian arm of the Republican Party."

That lack of trust dates back to at least early 2000, recalled Donohue, when the League was harshly critical of Republican efforts to deny a Catholic priest the job of Chaplain to the House of Representatives. "A number of prominent Catholic Republican conservatives got on my case very strongly and told me to back off -- that I was hurting the Catholic cause," recalled Donohue. He continued, "Some of these people expect everyone to line up single file and report to duty and [resent it when] they find out you're independent, even though you share some of their philosophical opinions."

Still, Donohue, a registered Independent, is aware of the perception that he's taking marching orders from the Republican National Committee or the Bush campaign. "I'm getting flack from my own members" about it, he says. Some of that goes back to his attacks on Vanderslice and Pederson.

"I got two scalps and I'm proud of that," says Donohue. But to those who suspect he's coordinating his activities with Republican operatives -- that, for example, the information on Vanderslice and Peterson was fed to him -- Donohue scoffs. He says he used publicly available data bases, Google and Nexis-Lexis, to get the information. "If I depended on those [Republican Party] dopes," says Donohue, nothing would have happened.

Wallis is equally adamant that Sojourners and Call to Renewal, its sister organization, are non-partisan operations. "There is no coordination whatsoever between Sojourners, Call to Renewal and the Kerry campaign," says Wallis.

In fact, says Wallis, he has consistently argued that "the Democrats should not make the same mistake the Republicans have made, which is to co-opt the religious community for a partisan agenda." Religion, says Wallis, "serves us best when it is not ideologically predictable or loyally partisan."

That non-partisanship was most recently demonstrated, says Wallis, in the full-page advertisement Sojourners sponsored in The New York Times. That ad carried the headline "God is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat." and said "sincere Christians and other people of faith can choose to vote for President Bush or Senator Kerry -- for reasons deeply rooted in their faith."

But non-partisanship does not preclude harsh criticism of the religious right. "They're not just endorsing George Bush, they're ordaining George Bush as God's candidate," Wallis says of such religious right leaders as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

And non-partisanship doesn't preclude criticism or praise related to issues. Wallis opposes abortion-rights and has criticized Democrats on that and other issues. "I've challenged the Democrats on not being champions for the poor [and many Democrats] have been weak and unclear on Iraq."

The Iraqi war, it seems, is to the religious left what abortion is to the religious right. "George Bush's war in Iraq violates fundamental Christian ethics and values and he should be held electorally accountable for that," says Wallis.

"The pope opposes the war on religious ground," says Wallis. "Does that make him a surrogate for John Kerry?"


Neither presidential campaign met the early August deadline set by the U.S. bishops conference for responding to a questionnaire designed to solicit their views on a wide-range of public policy questions. So the bishops' conference withdrew the questionnaire.

That's the public story on how the controversial questionnaire ended up in the waste basket.

Since 1988, the bishops' conference has asked the major party candidates (and significant third party standard bearers) for their views on issues the conference deems important, ranging from abortion and the death penalty to farm subsidies, the minimum wage, health care and gun control. The responses are then provided to diocesan newspapers, which have been instructed by the bishops' legal advisors to run them unedited, lest they be accused of partisanship.

Every time the bishops have issued the questionnaire, opponents of abortion holler that the bishops have fallen into a trap - that the very process leads to equating doctrinal issues such as abortion with matters of individual judgment, such as the minimum wage. This year was no different.

Crisis magazine publisher Deal Hudson said the questionnaire provides "ardently pro-abortion candidates political cover." Culture of Life Foundation president Austin Ruse charged that liberal staffers at the bishops' conference "do their darnedest to undermine the life issues."

There's some speculation that the candidates' failure to respond provided nice cover and that opposition to the questionnaire from some bishops, combined with the uproar from the conservative groups, played a part in the decision to shelve it.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2004 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280