Religion and Politics: U.S.A

By Cahill, Lisa Sowle | Theological Studies, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Religion and Politics: U.S.A


Cahill, Lisa Sowle, Theological Studies


THE 2008 ELECTION SEASON was tumultuous, divisive, exhilarating, and historically unique. It yielded the first black president, Democratic candidate Barack Hussein Obama, (1) with the first Catholic vice president, Joseph Biden. Republican counterparts were John McCain, a decorated war hero; and Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, potentially the first woman vice president.

Obama's campaign to empower his message at the "grassroots" was massively effective. It registered new African-American, Hispanic, and young voters, all of whom strongly favored Obama. Using frequent email appeals, Obama raised over $600 million from over three million donors--a virtual plebiscite on his popularity. Obama won 53% of the vote, compared to McCain's 46%. Catholics favored him 54% to 45%. Yet (non-Hispanic) whites overall favored McCain 55% to 43%, with a narrower gap among white Catholics--52% to 47%. This means that Latinos--66% pro-Obama--gained him the Catholic vote. Still, Obama did better with white Catholics than the two previous Democrats (Gore 2000, Kerry 2004). (2)

Though U.S. political and legal traditions separate church and state (government cannot establish a religion, nor directly fund religious activities), America is a religious country. Only 6.3% of Americans self-identify as "secular" and "unaffiliated" with any religion. (3) Religious leaders and groups are politically active and influential. The religious beliefs of candidates (all Protestant except Biden) were scrutinized. Catholics, a quarter of the electorate, were courted by both parties. Catholics are integrated into the American mainstream, yet Catholic identity is still stamped by 19th- and early-20th-century immigrant experiences. (4) Some recall or imagine a "vibrant culture of the Catholic ghetto" existing pre-Vatican II. (5) They resent lingering anti-Catholic sentiment that immigrant forebears evoked. Yet Catholic ethnic enclaves could be tainted by defensiveness and racism. Catholic calls for justice were not always inclusive. (6) Prioritizing issues like economic equity, education, employment, and health care, Obama summoned all to the common good. McCain promised to win the war and identified himself as "pro-life" (yet supports embryonic stem cell research). Defense of life is central to Catholic moral tradition; it especially appeals to Catholics for whom "pro-life" serves as an identity marker amid cultural pluralism. (7)

Since 1975, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has issued political advisories. In November 2007, it overwhelmingly approved Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship to guide but not to "tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote" (nos. 7, 58). Taking innocent life is not "just one issue among many" (no. 28), yet "other serious threats" including racism, the death penalty, unjust war, hunger, health care, and immigration "are not optional concerns" (no. 29). Abortion is an "intrinsic evil," but "racism" falls in the same category (no. 34), along with genocide, torture, and targeting noncombatants (no. 23). Faithful Citizenship calls for prudential discernment and "'the art of the possible'" (John Paul II, Evangelium vitae no. 73). Catholics must neither advocate intrinsic evil, nor be single-issue voters (no. 34). As the election neared, some bishops reclaimed abortion to define Catholic politics, equated opposition to abortion with commitment to make it illegal, and excluded the possibility of Catholics supporting Obama. (8) But judging the morality of abortion is logically and ethically distinct from choosing political strategies to combat it; and distinct from judging morally or religiously those who choose differently.

A novel U.S. development is a bipartisan and ecumenical "progressive" coalition combining social justice and ecology with traditional "pro-life" causes. This movement connects through internet media, public events, and religious activism. (9) A surge of Catholic publications and organizations advances a similar "common good" agenda.

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