Obama Catholics

by on June 9, 2009  •  In Religion

From The Tablet, a British Catholic publication:

A new kind of Catholic Democrat is emerging in America's corridors of power – young, politically committed and often with the same community organising background as the President himself. So who are these new church advocates with a direct line to Obama? At the time of the Democratic ­primary campaign last year, the patriarch of America's iconic Catholic family, Senator Edward Kennedy, gave then-Senator Barack Obama's campaign a boost with his endorsement. Kennedy hails from an earlier era of Catholic political involvement. For him, as for other prominent Catholics such as Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, politics is the family business. The culture of Catholicism in the north-­eastern United States is tribal, heavily influenced by the ethnic immigrant experience and its hardships, built upon personal loyalties as much as ideological inclinations, and the politics reflects that culture.

While these traditional Catholics supported Obama, his victory and the power that goes with it have allowed him to patronise a new and different kind of Catholic Democrat, whose source of political involvement is more intentional than tribal and more rooted in ideas. Their curricula vitae are likely to include experience as an activist or community organiser. They are younger and they plug into their constituencies through blogs and emails, rather than visits to the union hall. They are as likely to hail from the Midwest or California as from New England or Maryland. Many of them are Latino. They are Obama's Catholics.

On 27 May, at 8.08 p.m., … the White House announc[ed] the nomination of a new ambassador to the Holy See, Professor Miguel Diaz. A theologian at St John's University in Minnesota, Diaz is a scholar whose works bring together the ­theology of Karl Rahner with the experience of US Hispanic Catholics, with heavy nods to liberation theology. He is the first theologian to be appointed to the post and the first Hispanic to represent the US at the Vatican…

Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good is the paradigmatic new Catholic advocacy organisation. Chairman of its board is Elizabeth Bagley, an ambassador during the Clinton years, whose husband, Smith Bagley, donated $119,700 to the Democrats' campaign last year. The group's executive director and co-founder, Alexia Kelley, worked at the Campaign for Human Development, the Church's national anti-poverty programme, for years. The other co-founder of the group, Tom Perriello, is now a Democrat congressman from Virginia. … Kelley is leaving Catholics in Alliance to become director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services, a key post. Catholics United is another advocacy group in the new style….

… When Obama nominated Kathleen Sebelius to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, conservative Catholics howled. Sebelius is pro-choice and, as Governor of Kansas, had been prohibited by her bishop from receiving Communion because of her stance. Catholics in Alliance composed a petition of prominent Catholics in support of her nomination. Catholics United issued a press release supporting her as well …. Even four years ago, reporters could write that "Catholics oppose" such a nomination. These new groups have levelled the playing field. …

…Of course, some Catholics with influence in the White House got there the old-fashioned way, through a career in politics, not a career in Catholic advocacy. Most prominent among them are vice president Joe Biden and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee Donna Brazile. …

For John F. Kennedy's generation of Catholic politicians, the pressing need was to fight anti-Catholic prejudice and demonstrate their patriotic bona fides. Obama's Catholics, conversely, have had to demonstrate their Catholic credentials, not their American ones. Today, conservative Catholics charge their progressive counterparts with not being sufficiently influenced by their faith, backsliding from the efforts of some bishops to prioritise life issues and claiming the Catholic mantle for social justice concerns about which reasonable Catholics can disagree. The progressives counter that conservative Catholics abandoned the rich social justice teachings of the Church in favour of a one-issue approach to politics centred on abortion. Whether you agree with the Obama Catholics or not, so far they have the President's ear.


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