Barack Obama is a natural for the Catholic vote.

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Feb. 13 2008 1:29 PM

Reaganites for Obama?

Sorry, McCain. Barack Obama is a natural for the Catholic vote.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

My dear late mother would say: "Steer clear of mixing religion and politics in public discussions." Sorry, Mom, but the mix is unavoidable. Religion shapes us, and politics is our addictive national reality show. In any event, my faith, Catholicism, teaches that pluralism is enhanced, not threatened, when religions talk to one another.

Apparently, we're pretty persuasive. Catholics have been on the side of the top vote-getter (who, as we know from playing hanging chad, is not always the winner) in the last nine presidential elections. The Electoral College and the Supreme Court threw us a curve in 2000, but many Catholics probably put their choice of Al Gore in the "you can't blame us" department. Unlike our Jewish brothers and sisters who trend Democratic, and our Protestant friends who regularly populate Republican ranks, we're the ultimate flip-floppers, picking Republicans five times and Democrats four since 1972. Naturally, this led me straight to supporting Mitt Romney, whom McCain once snidely called "the real candidate of change," claiming that the governor changed positions more often than the rest of them (which from where I sit is a bit like asserting the Atlantic is wetter than the Pacific).

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As a Catholic legal scholar chairing Romney's Committee on the Constitution, I worked to help him overcome a form of religious prejudice that had previously plagued John F. Kennedy, who needed to promise Protestant ministers in 1960 that his Oval Office would not have a hotline to the Vatican. Romney was pressed to assure voters that there wouldn't be a Mormon prophet lingering behind the West Wing curtains. Had anyone actually listened, Romney's "Faith in America" address was a tour de force in defense of the best traditions of religious liberty. But his eloquence—unfortunately and unfairly—was not reciprocated with faith in him.

But now that Romney's out, whom might Catholics turn to? Since I served at one time as Reagan's constitutional lawyer, it would be natural for me to fall in line behind John McCain. Don't worry about his conservative lapses, says President Bush, the foremost expert on lapsed conservativism. There is no gainsaying that McCain is a military hero deserving of salute. But McCain seems fixated on just taking the next hill in Iraq. His Iraqi military objective is laudable, but it assumes good reasons to be there in the first place. It also ignores that Catholics are looking to bless the peacemakers.

Now, don't think me daft, but when Obama gave his victory remarks in Iowa calling upon America to "choose hope over fear and to choose unity over division," he was standing squarely in the shoes of the "Great Communicator." Notwithstanding all of Bill Clinton's self-possessed heckling to the contrary, Obama was right—Reagan was a "transformative" president. Reagan liked to tell us he was proudest of his ability to make America feel good about itself. He did. Catholic sensibility tells me Obama wants it to deserve that feeling.

Much of the Catholic primary vote has been in the Democratic column, going at first to Hillary Clinton over Obama, as in New Hampshire, where she won 44 percent to 27 percent. But lately, Obama has been narrowing the gap, using the Catholic vote to vault to victory. In the Illinois primary, where Obama bested Clinton 65 percent to 33 percent, he attracted 48 percent of the Catholic vote. When Obama's share of the Catholic vote drops, the races tighten: In still-undecided New Mexico, only 39 percent of Catholic voters went for Obama.

Clinton lost Tuesday to Obama in Maryland, the first Catholic settlement in America, but also in Virginia, where the number of Catholic households in the burgeoning northern section of the commonwealth is up more than 67 percent over the last decade. However hard-working, intelligent, and policy savvy she may be (and she is), Clinton seldom inspires even the so-called "social justice" Catholics or reveals that rare gift of empathy that defined Reagan and that one glimpses in Obama. Say what you will about not preferring style over substance, modern leadership requires both, especially now when the international community—whose help we need to arrest terrorism—seldom gives us the benefit of the doubt.

But the primary statistics do not tell the full story. For the general election, it's important to peer deeper into the Catholic mind.

Catholics shed their Republican wardrobe in the 2006 midterm election, favoring Democrats 55 percent to 45 percent—a reversal of their 52 percent to 47 percent support for Bush over Kerry in 2004. Because Democratic and Catholic dogmas collide over the polarizing issue of abortion, Catholics do have to navigate some difficult ethical waters to contemplate voting blue. McCain and Huckabee—unlike either of the Democrats—join in the Catholic prayer for the unborn, but Republican promises have often left those prayers unanswered. While no papal instruction will ever condone the "right to choose," the church does ask for a consistent and realistic defense of life that actually takes steps to reduce the incidence of the practice, not just condemns it. Catholics will note that McCain and Huckabee's pro-life postures collapse when it comes to the death penalty. Even if the Supreme Court decides later this spring that lethal injection is not "cruel and unusual" under our Constitution, capital sentencing is often erratic and erroneous in light of the modern availability and reliability of DNA evidence. It is Catholic instruction that there are better ways to deter violent crime.

Beyond life issues, an audaciously hope-filled Democrat like Obama is a Catholic natural. Anyone seeking "liberty and justice for all" really can't be satisfied with racially segregated public schools that don't teach. And there's something deeply hypocritical about being a nation of immigrants that won't welcome any more of them. And that creation that God saw as good in Genesis? Well, even without seeing Al Gore melt those glaciers over and over again, Catholics chose Al to better steward a world beset with unnatural disasters. Climate change is driven by mindless consumption that devotes more ingenuity to securing golden parachutes than energy independence.

Of course, marriage and family are indispensable as well, and until now, Catholics saw the Republicans as having a lock on the family issue. But if either Clinton or Obama would acknowledge the myriad problems associated with a declining population in the developed world and affirm the importance of both having and raising children (and not just punting these duties over to Hillary's "village"), Catholics could well contemplate a Democratic adoption.

Sorry to tell you this, Sen. McCain, but a good number of the Catholics I know are not certain to light candles at the Republican political altar. Some of us who rode McCain's Straight Talk Express before the Republican commitment to a balanced budget put us on track toward a $400 billion deficit appreciate his confessed desire to redeem himself as a faithful conservative. But there are suspicions. After all, hanging out with Joe Lieberman and Russ Feingold comes well within the Latin canon: Similes similibus gaudent. Pares cum paribus facile congregantur—birds of a feather flock together. So instead, some Catholics may be hoping for a Huckabee miracle. Southern Baptists and Catholics haven't always gotten along, but there is something just downright Knights of Columbus-friendly about the guy—squirrel-roasting aside. Huck's delegate math will need to cash in more than a few chits with St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, but hey, in theology, if you can make do with five loaves and fishes, what's the big deal about delegates?

So, here's the thing: John McCain will have many Catholics in the pews a little while longer, but more than a few of us are thinking of giving him up for Lent. Reagan used to say that he didn't leave the Democratic Party, it left him. The launch of "Reaganites for Obama" might not be far behind. We might not be there yet, but we're getting close.

Douglas Kmiec is a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University.

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