How Catholics Are Judging Obama and the Democrats

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Left; Peter Reali / Corbis: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

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Obama has also benefitted from the resurgence of progressive Catholics. The Catholic Left used to be a vigorous social and political presence, from the work of Dorothy Day to the activism of the Berrigan brothers to disarmament advocates in the 1980s. But by the time Kerry ran in 2004, there were very few Catholic voices echoing his insistence that church teaching addressed more than just abortion or pushing back against suggestions that he and other pro-choice Catholics should be denied communion.

This void, and Kerry's defeat, prompted a group of progressive Catholics to create their own infrastructure after 2004. When two young graduate students first launched Catholics United, they had $1,000 in seed money and were operating out of a dorm room. Four years later, the nonpartisan organization has more than 30,000 members and a $200,000 budget. This month they are sending a direct mail piece titled "What Does Being Pro-Life Really Mean?" to 50,000 Catholic households in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The same message is plastered across billboards in heavily Catholic swing states.

Pro-life Catholics have also spoken out to argue that Obama's support for an abortion reduction strategy — which he mentioned in both his acceptance speech and in the third presidential debate — makes him a more "pro-life" candidate than McCain. The GOP's single focus on overturning Roe, they argue, ignores the progress that could be made in lowering the abortion rate through changes in economic policies and by reforming adoption laws. Most recently, two high-profile Obama supporters — former Reagan Justice Department official Douglas Kmiec and actor Martin Sheen — have filmed a series of short videos making this case that are being disseminated by the Democratic PAC Matthew 25.

Despite all of the arguments about what it means to be pro-life and which party best represents Catholic social teaching, however, the election is likely to come down to one issue for most Catholic voters: the economy. Other voting blocs, such as white evangelicals, have also expressed strong concerns about the economic situation but have not shifted over to support the Democratic ticket, primarily because of a strong identification with the GOP. But Catholics have a different relationship with the Democratic Party. Many grew up with grandparents who hung portraits of FDR on the living room wall and have parents who celebrated Kennedy's victory as one of their own.

In a year like 2008, when the economy trumps social issues, Catholics are most likely to return to their roots in the Democratic Party. And that's particularly true when they hear fellow Catholics arguing that Democrats reflect their religious values. McCain may have gotten a longer standing ovation on his way to the podium at the Al Smith Dinner and dropped references to "defending the rights of the unborn" in among his jokes. But it was Obama who won over Al Smith IV, the event's emcee and great-grandson of the historic candidate. "Awesome," Smith told Obama after the Democrat had finished speaking. "That was just awesome!"

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