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.

Mother Teresa with Hillary Clinton in 1995. Click image to expand.
Mother Teresa with Hillary Clinton in 1995

I don't know that I'd go as far as Doug Kmiec, the conservative jurist who proclaimed that except on the "life issues,"Barack Obama is a "Catholic natural." For a lot of Catholic voters, that would be like saying they love pizza except for the crust. Still, there is a lot for Catholics to like in Obama's early opposition to the war, attention to social justice issues, and promise of reconciliation across so many divides. And his stance on abortion rights is identical to Hillary Clinton's, so you'd think that issue would be off the table in the Democratic primary. Most of my Catholic friends are backing Obama, and two of my colleagues at Commonweal are on his steering committee. ("Gosh, I don't know anyone who's supporting Hillary," said Pam Wonnell, a friend since we had Sister Mary Edna in the first grade who is active in her parish in West Virginia now—and was en route to volunteer in Obama's Huntington, W.Va., office when I caught her.)

But apparently my friends are highly unrepresentative because Clinton is killing Obama among Catholics. The Washington Post notes that "[w]hite Catholics have been a Clinton mainstay throughout the nomination contest. She has won the group by double-digits in 16 of the 22 states where data were available. In Pennsylvania, Clinton won 70 percent of all Catholics." The fact that more-devout Catholic voters go even more decisively for Clinton—among those who attend Mass at least weekly, she won 3-to-1—suggests that the correlation goes beyond other demographic factors. So: Why is that?

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A priest I know in central Pennsylvania, the Rev. John Chaplin, sees race as an issue. "At my little church, some of what I heard was racial, and some of it was people believing that stuff about Obama being a Muslim," said Chaplin. Parishioners seemed to find video clips of Obama's former preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, particularly shocking in contrast to the formality of the Catholic Mass and our high-church fondness for services so decorous that one really needn't exchange a word with another soul. ("We don't carry on like that in our church" is how one woman in Chaplin's diocese, the 67-year-old wife of a retired cop, described her reaction to Wright to me.)

"You know that Catholic thing about propriety," Chaplin said, "that you penalize people for speaking out and never penalize them for keeping quiet? That's part of it, and the Catholic notion of patriotism, which is heavily nationalistic, hurts him, too. This isn't a group predisposed to voting for Hillary—when she can get the votes away from you, you know people have got it in for you—because this is not a hotbed of feminism. But the racial thing was already there, and he hurt himself badly with the comment" suggesting that economically struggling Americans "cling" to religion out of weakness. By contrast, when Hillary spoke of looking to God in thanksgiving as well as in tough times, that really resonated with Catholics. As it should: Clinton has for years spoken of the importance of gratitude to God as a daily discipline—a concept she adopted from the Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen.

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