Threats to religious liberty could be a unifying force for Catholic voters this November.
A group that makes up roughly a quarter of the electorate but historically does not vote as a bloc, the Catholic faithful — united — would wield significant power.
Brian Burch, president of Catholic Vote, said, “The Catholic Church has a massive political army in America — it has just not been organized effectively, and that is what we are trying to do. Sixty-five million Catholics faithfully applying Catholic social teaching would dramatically change the future of this country.”
He added that the continued prosperity of the United States depends on the protection of religious freedom.
“If we don’t act, if we don’t participate, freedom can be snuffed out, and there’s a great fear that we’re heading quickly in that direction,” he said.
An element of particular concern is President Barack Obama’s Health and Human Services (HHS) preventive-services mandate, which would force many Catholic institutions to pay for contraceptives, including drugs that cause abortion. Every U.S. bishop is united against the mandate, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently completed a Fortnight for Freedom, a campaign of prayer and education about religious freedom.
The bishops are not alone in encouraging prayer and education for religious liberty. A new campaign of prayer, fasting and repentance — 40 Days to Save America — will be held Sept. 28 through Nov. 6.
On the effort’s website, campaign organizers say the nation faces “pending economic collapse, moral disintegration and internal terrorism.” They call on people of faith to make informed choices and vote, not as members of any political party, but as “followers of the living God.” Web visitors have the option to sign up for daily prayer emails and to find online voter registration forms.
Pastor Rick Scarborough, leader of 40 Days and founder of Vision America, said citizens must stand up and say, “Enough.” He called the upcoming election “paramount,” adding, “We’re so close to the abyss that only God can save us.”
Partners of the effort include several members of Congress, Priests for Life, Catholic Advocate and EWTN. The Register is a service of EWTN.
Matt Smith, president of Catholic Advocate, said the 40 Days campaign is an opportunity to build ecumenical partnerships and “encourage all people of faith to engage in prayer and action.”
Smith added that Catholic Advocate seeks to encourage the faithful to participate actively in the political process and support candidates and policies consistent with the teachings of the Church.
In a message to the Pontifical Council on the Laity in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI said, “It is the duty of the laity to participate actively in political life in a manner coherent with the teaching of the Church.”
The Pope cited areas of particular concern, including the defense of life and freedom, the protection of truth and the good of the family, solidarity with the needy and the search for the common good.
Last month, Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Healthe Association, who broke with the bishops to support Obama’s health-care bill, announced that the HHS mandate “would be unlikely to adequately meet the religious-liberty concerns of all of our members and other Church ministries.”
Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association, said the issue of conscience rights unifies Catholics.
“Catholics of all stripes see the threat and the damaging effects this mandate will have on Catholic social-justice activities,” she said.
Last month, a poll sponsored by the association found that “the mandate is a losing issue with key constituencies — Catholics, independents and women.”
According to the poll, 29% of Catholics were less likely to re-elect Obama because of the HHS mandate, while 13% were more likely. Religiously active white females responded that they are less likely to vote for Obama by a more than 3-1 margin, and independents responded in kind by a nearly 2-1 margin.
Ferguson added that there has been a slow encroachment on religious liberties that is bigger than the HHS mandate.
Burch of Catholic Vote called the current coercion of religious practices in this country “unprecedented.” The effect may be that Catholic voters are united like never before. He believes that there is a large, persuadable group of Catholics who may not have shown much interest in political life before, but once informed and inspired, these poll-going Catholics could incite change.
News outlets have called the Catholic voter bloc the “bellwether” of the upcoming election. Swing states like Ohio and Florida are heavily Catholic, and though Catholics do not vote as a bloc, they do swing as a bloc. The percentage of Catholics that swings is greater than that of the general electorate, he said.
Catholic Vote, the Catholic Advocate, the Catholic Association and 40 Days to Save America are non-partisan groups. Burch reminds us that “Catholics are not — and ought not to be — firmly attached to any particular political party.”
Register correspondent Christine M. Williams writes from Quincy, Massachusetts.