Why Catholics prefer Clinton to Obama.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 1 2008 5:33 PM

Hillary for Mother Superior

Why Catholics prefer Clinton to Obama.

(Continued from Page 1)

Familiarity with Catholic language and sensibilities certainly works in Clinton's favor. When she said a few years ago that every abortion is a tragedy, some of her strongest supporters were outraged—and it was more of a Sister Souljah moment than Obama has ever had. In fact, what he's said on the subject has had the opposite effect. At a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, Obama said that when providing information about sex to his own daughters, "I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals. But if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby." For even mildly pro-life voters, using the word "punished" in that context was at least as unfortunate as describing believers as "bitter." "He's got more missteps on the life issues than she does," said a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., who took leaves from work to volunteer for Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's presidential campaigns but who wrote in Bob Casey for president in '04 and is drifting away from the Democrats over the abortion issue. "That comment about not wanting to punish his daughter with a baby was all over the life blogs, so even though their positions are the same," language does matter, as does communicating respect for Democrats with a dissenting view on abortion rights. "If you're a Democrat desperate to come back to the party, you might be more comfortable with her."

Though Saturday Night Live wouldn't seem to be in the vanguard of Catholic thought, Tina Fey may have been onto something with her "Bitch Is the New Black" comparison of Hillary to a cranky but proficient old nun: "Bitches get stuff done; that's why Catholic schools use nuns as teachers and not priests. They're mean … and they sleep on cots, and they're allowed to hit you. And at the end of the school year, you hated those bitches. But you knew the capitol of Vermont."

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The '04 Casey voter says nun-run Catholic schools turned out a lot of good feminists: "Older Catholics with exposure to nuns in school may be more comfortable with women in positions of authority." And my one Catholic friend who does back Hillary thought the opposite experience also worked in Clinton's favor: "Don't you think Catholic women are tired of not seeing women in authority positions?" In Pennsylvania, where she has family, "My aunt and all her friends went for Hillary. There was a lot of, 'You go, girl.' " And for her, part of the appeal is the general impression that Clinton seems more devoted to her faith than either Obama or John McCain. "She just seems the most religious of the three—particularly now that Obama's thrown his preacher under the bus."

So Jeremiah Wright hurts Obama coming and going. And yet, somehow, the double whammy of his wiggy pastor has not disabused voters of the paranoid notion that Obama is a secret Muslim only posing as a Christian. (Really, what candidate with half-good sense would pose as Wright's congregant?) A Catholic woman from Clearfield, Pa., said that though the rest of her large extended family unanimously supports Clinton, they rarely mention their preferred candidate but instead talk endlessly about what would seem to be mutually exclusive concerns: Obama's relationship with Wright, and how we're all going to have to buy Muslim prayer rugs if he's elected. "Wright does need to low-key it, but that's all they want to talk about,'' said the woman, who didn't want to be quoted by name in calling her relatives a bunch of rednecks. "And what makes me heartsick is that's the kind of thing you say so you don't have to say the real reason is you won't vote for a black guy."

Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.

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