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.

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."

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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