WASHINGTON — The Islamic State’s atrocities against Christians and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, as well as Russian aggression in Ukraine, have catapulted foreign policy to be a leading issue for Catholics — as for other voters — in the 2014 midterm elections.
“This particular midterm election has several very dramatic issues that are hanging in the air, those being immigration, ISIS and the Ukraine, and these are not issues that will necessarily unite Catholic voters in a certain direction,” said Deal Hudson, the former director of Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee under President George W. Bush.
Hudson told the Register that the traditional non-negotiable issues — defense of life and marriage for example — will not play much of a role in the midterm elections on Nov. 4.
“The reason being that those issues are up front and center during national elections when presidential candidates become the single representative of a political party’s point of view,” Hudson said.
The contentious immigration debate and the ISIS threat are currently the most discussed topics in the nation’s public affairs, with some discussion reserved for the Affordable Care Act’s lingering unpopularity among voters.
“I think it’s a strange election in a lot of respects. There don’t really seem to be any overarching dominant issues that are really moving voters,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. Schneck, who-chaired Catholics for Obama in 2012, told the Register that he senses a malaise among voters with less than two months before the elections.
“I think there is some issue fatigue that has set in among liberal and conservative Catholics,” Schneck said. “It’s not so much that Catholic positions are changing, but among Catholic voters there seems to be a sense of, ‘We’ve been there, done that so many times. It doesn’t ever seem like we’re able to really make significant advances on these issues.’”
However, other analysts such as Joshua Mercer, the political director at Catholic Vote, say that the traditionally salient issues for Catholic voters, including defense of the unborn, are still very much important at the ballot box.
“Ending taxpayer funding of abortion is supported by 70% to 80% of Americans and two-thirds of Americans support a ban on abortions after 20 weeks when a child can feel pain. So these are issues where we can win,” Mercer told the Register.
Pope Francis and the nation’s Catholic bishops have called for prayers and international assistance to stop the Islamic State’s vicious onslaught in Iraq and Syria. On Sept. 10, President Obama outlined a four-point plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant terrorist group. On Sept. 22, the U.S. and its allies began launching airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria.
Meanwhile, fighting continues in eastern Ukraine between government forces and rebel groups believed to be supported by Russia, which has blatantly defied the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by intervening in Ukraine.
“It’s not clear to voters, or it’s certainly not being made clear to voters by politicians, that there are appropriate, clear obvious things that the United States should be doing in response to these situations,” Schneck said.
However, Hudson said that it was not until two American journalists — James Foley and Steven Sotloff — were killed by the Islamic State that the Obama administration took any steps to help Christians who have been persecuted in the Middle East for the last decade.
“Catholic voters tend to be very patriotic, so when they see a president looking weak in the face of terrorism, in the face of dictatorship, that bothers them. They may not know it consciously, but it does,” Hudson said.
In an Aug. 13 letter to Obama, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, thanked Obama for the humanitarian assistance and protection the United States had provided to Iraqi Christians fleeing persecution, though the archbishop said that more needed to be done.
Another issue, closely tied to foreign policy, also is making life difficult for Democrats and Republicans — immigration.
The nation’s Catholic bishops have strongly supported “comprehensive immigration reform” that would include a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants who are in the United States without legal documents. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill last summer, but the measure stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The controversial issue has been further complicated by more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border since October 2013. Immigration advocates say the minors are fleeing violent street gangs and drug cartels, while critics blame the Obama administration’s policies for encouraging people to illegally immigrate to the United States.
Earlier this month, President Obama announced that he would not sign an executive reform before the midterm elections, a decision seemingly intended not to hurt Democrats’ chances among voters. Recent polling appears to support that strategy, with a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing that 27% of Americans oppose a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which is favored by only 21%.
Testifying before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on June 25, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, urged Congress to cooperate on immigration, not to politicize it. “This issue should not be viewed as an occasion for political posturing, but as an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation,” he said.
Catholics, even those who vote for Republicans, tend to support immigration reform more than other Christians, but those who support stronger border security are often accused of bigotry, Mercer said.
“The Catholic bishops have done a good job of trying to elevate the debate,” Mercer added. “But there are no easy solutions. There won’t be one magical 1,200-page bill passed by Congress that will solve every problem with immigration. Our government has neglected its basic duties on this issue for decades. It’ll take hard work and bipartisan cooperation to fix it.”
Obamacare and Religious Freedom
A domestic issue that also stirs up voters’ passions is the Affordable Care Act — called “Obamacare” by critics — that has been unpopular since the president signed it into law in 2010.
According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 47% of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Affordable Care Act, and only 35% have a favorable view. Several Democratic senators are facing difficult re-election bids because of their support for the health-care law.
“Obamacare remains deeply unpopular,” Mercer said. “By forcing just about every employer in the country to pay for abortion pills, it is the most pro-abortion bill ever to become law. It is a grave attack on religious liberty and moral conscience.”
The health-care law empowered the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to mandate that all government-approved forms of birth control — including abortifacients — be covered in employee health insurance plans, which has spawned dozens of lawsuits and impelled the U.S. bishops to speak out against the threat to the religious freedoms of Catholic nonprofits and individual Christian business owners.
A Sept. 15 report from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office appeared to confirm the bishops’ concerns about abortion coverage in the law.
“This report confirms the U.S. bishops’ long-standing concern about abortion coverage that we raised both before and after enactment of the Affordable Care Act by Congress,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a Sept. 16 statement.
However, Kristen Day, executive Director of Democrats For Life of America, disputed the argument that the Affordable Care Act allows federal tax funds to be used for abortion coverage.
“Republicans are perpetuating the myth that the Affordable Care Act funds abortion, and people are starting to believe it,” Day told the Register.
Defense of Life
Abortion has not received much attention recently in mainstream media political analyses, but the issue remains vitally important to the pro-life community and faithful Catholics.
Schneck suggested that the life issues “should be foremost,” though he believes that they “don’t seem to be on Catholic voters’ minds a great deal in this election.” Mercer said that several Republican candidates are campaigning on the HHS mandate forcing Catholic nuns to pay for abortifacient drugs.
“This is a winning issue for Republican candidates because the American people do not support such a radical move,” Mercer said, adding that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, was reluctant to campaign on abortion and contraception, which allowed the Democratic Party to frame the contraception issue as a “war on women.”
Day conceded that pro-life Democrats have a “tremendously difficult” time within their party, but she said being pro-life can be a winning issue for Democrats in certain congressional districts.
“The party is making a strategic error right now in not supporting these candidates who are pro-life and the best candidate for their districts,” Day said.
Defense of Marriage
The same-sex “marriage” question appears headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently added several cases for consideration at its Sept. 29 conference. Three federal appellate courts have ruled that state-level bans on same-sex “marriage” are unconstitutional. At least 32 states — roughly split between those that allow and do not allow same-sex “marriage” — have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the issue.
The issue has not been discussed much on the campaign trails, mainly because most states have already decided the issue one way or the other.
“There might be a few states which might flip, particularly in the Midwest, but that will still take a few years,” Mercer said.
Joseph Grabowski, the director of communications at the National Organization for Marriage, told The Register that the same-sex “marriage” is still very much a live political issue.
“We believe that the extent to which a candidate puts marriage out there as a front-running issue, it’s going to benefit the candidate,” Grabowski said. “We encourage people to vote on the marriage issue, to make it known to their candidates and the exit pollsters that marriage is a determining factor in how they vote because only in doing that will we see the narrative in the media change.”
In a July 24 statement responding to federal court decisions that struck down state-level bans on same-sex “marriage,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, reaffirmed the right of children to grow up in a family with a mother and father.
“I encourage all who are working to promote and defend authentic marriage to continue their efforts, knowing that ultimately the truth shall prevail,” Archbishop Cordileone said.
Leaving aside specific issues, Obama’s White House and both chambers of Congress all have low favorability ratings, which has not helped either Democrats or Republicans generate voter excitement.
“It’s really a battle of the brands in these midterm elections, Republicans vs. Democrats,” Hudson commented. “Catholic voters are going to be making their decisions based on which party they trust the most, rather than individual candidates on life issues or anything approaching the non-negotiable issues.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.