Politics & Policy

Living On a Prayer

Pro-abortion candidates like Kerry face long-term trouble from Catholics.

Senator John Kerry has gotten religion in the waning days of the campaign, but for Catholic voters, his conversion may have come too late.

The favored candidate of liberal secularists and abortion-rights activists has recently taken to reminiscing about his days as an altar boy, gushing about his “deep respect” for Catholic moral teachings even as he defies them, and reminding his audiences that he does, indeed, go to Mass.

“I’m a Catholic, raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy,” Kerry said during the presidential debate in St. Louis, while trying to dodge a question about whether he would use taxpayer money to fund abortions. (He has publicly promised that he would.)

“I am a Catholic…I grew up a Catholic. I was an altar boy,” he intoned again in Tempe, while promising that he would only appoint pro-abortion judges to the Supreme Court. “…My faith affects everything that I do, in truth.”

Perhaps Kerry felt compelled to add that caveat because so many Catholics watching at home might have concluded otherwise, since their church has always considered abortion a grave evil that must never be protected by law or supported by public authorities.

Kerry has calculated that despite his flagrant disregard for Catholic teaching on such fundamental moral issues as the sanctity of life and the protection of marriage, he can still persuade the bulk of Catholic voters to support him. His tactic: Repeat his religious affiliation ad nauseum and assure Catholics that he personally opposes that which his policies protect.

That ploy has worked for candidates like Kerry in the past. But a combination of factors–from the increasing boldness of America’s pro-life bishops to the proliferation of pro-life Catholic voter’s guides and the success of pro-life parish-based registration drives–have left Kerry surprisingly vulnerable among Catholics.

Election-year polls have shown Catholic support about evenly split between Kerry and President George W. Bush, with churchgoing Catholics favoring Bush and those who rarely attend Mass preferring Kerry.

But other polls suggest that Bush may be pulling ahead among Catholic voters as a whole. In midsummer, Zogby International pollsters began seeing a significant Catholic shift toward the president in such swing states as Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. Zogby senior political writer Fritz Wenzel told the Catholic News Service that increased attention on Kerry’s pro-abortion policies combined with strong pro-life networks in those swing states was making the difference for Bush. The numbers show “concern about the legitimacy of the war in Iraq being overridden by ongoing discomfort with Kerry’s stand on abortion,” Wenzel said.

By the end of September, the difference was obvious to pollsters at the Barna Research Group, who found a “seismic shift” in support for the President among Catholics. In May, Kerry had led Bush 48 percent to 43 percent among Catholic voters. Late last month, a 22-point shift had put Bush in the lead, with 53 percent of Catholic voters supporting him and just 36 percent backing Kerry. Survey director George Barna said many of Bush’s Catholic supporters “have traditionally voted Democratic, but have chosen a different course this time around.”

The numbers remain in flux and conclusions are premature. A new Zogby poll suggests that Kerry may be regaining a slight edge among Catholics, though white Catholics–who tend to vote in greater numbers–continue to favor Bush. The race for the Catholic vote may be too close to call, but the fact that a Catholic Democrat running for president has failed to lock in the Catholic vote at this late stage should worry Kerry’s team–and buoy the Bush camp.

Those numbers should also encourage the Catholic leaders across America who have labored to educate the faithful about the importance of supporting pro-life and pro-family candidates. Groups like Priests for Life and Catholic Answers have hammered home the message that Catholics must vote for candidates who uphold Church teachings on the five “non-negotiable issues” of this election: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, and gay marriage. In many dioceses, that message is being preached from the pulpit and proclaimed by bold bishops like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis. “Our witness is not politically correct,” Burke recently told the audience at a pro-life convention in St. Louis. “We can be labeled as religious fanatics…. [But] we cannot be silent–we must act now.”

That message riles many Catholics, particularly those whose longtime allegiance to the Democratic party surpasses even their loyalty to the foundational principles of their Catholic faith. But its countercultural quality invigorates others–including a growing number of young Catholics who consider abortion a social injustice and consider Kerry a moral coward for supporting it.

Young Americans are growing more pro-life with each passing year. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that among young adults, support for legal abortion–which has been steadily dropping since the early 1990s–hit a new low in 2003, with less than four in ten young Americans agreeing that abortion should remain generally available. That’s down from nearly 50 percent who supported abortion rights a decade earlier. An earlier poll from the University of California at Berkeley reached similar conclusions, and found young Americans more amenable to traditional faith and mores than their parents and more willing to see religion and politics mix. The lead Berkeley researcher concluded that “if the youth of today maintain these positions on religious politics and abortion as the years go by, then the American public as a whole could become more conservative on these issues.”

That bodes well for the creation of a culture of life in America. And it spells trouble for pro-abortion Catholic candidates like Kerry, whose failure to live the faith they profess may be judged much more harshly by the next generation of religious voters.

Colleen Carroll Campbell, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., is a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.


The Latest