National Catholic Register

Commentary

What Now?

Will New Voters Refashion the Democratic Party?

BY ANGELO MATERA

November 16-22, 2008 Issue | Posted 11/11/08 at 10:05 AM

 

Throughout the blogosphere, in angry posts and comments, pro-life Catholics are venting their frustration over Barack Obama’s easy victory over John McCain.

The radical pro-abortion candidate won the presidential election with the support of 55% of Catholics, despite an urgent last-minute pro-life appeal by a significant number of bishops.

Yet, for faithful Catholics, there’s a silver lining to Obama’s victory.

In California, the same voting blocs that swept Obama into office — blacks and Latinos — also voted solidly in favor of Proposition 8, the successful ballot initiative that banned homosexual “marriage.” (See related front-page story.)

What does this mean? It confirms that Obama won despite — not because of — his social liberalism (Remember, “It’s the economy, stupid?”) and that there’s a large, untapped constituency of social conservatives within the Democratic Party just waiting to be organized on life and family issues and the full range of Catholic social teaching.

The “one-party” pro-life political strategy of the past 35 years (since the Roe v. Wade decision) that has identified the pro-life cause with the Republican Party and its increasingly secular, pro-war political ideology must be abandoned.

What’s needed is a new pro-life politics for the future that would explicitly open up a “second front” in the abortion battle within the Democratic Party.

I could go further and argue that the Democratic Party, with its stated emphasis on “we” over “me” (with the glaring exception of issues of personal morality) is the natural home for many pro-life, pro-family voters, just as it was during FDR’s New Deal, a program that was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church.

But you don’t have to accept that argument to agree that a two-party strategy makes political sense for the pro-life movement, if only so pro-life Catholics of either political stripe can have a home of their own.

Let’s face it. A one-party strategy hasn’t worked. It leaves the pro-life movement in the political wilderness when Republicans are out of favor, as they were this year due to the backlash against the Iraq War and the financial crisis, and as they were in 1992 and 1996 during Bill Clinton’s reign.

It’s also unjust. Democratic-leaning Catholics shouldn’t be forced to choose between their pro-life and social justice convictions every four years. The one-party strategy leaves a good chunk of faithful Catholics without an outlet for expressing their faith fully in the public square.

What I’m proposing is organizing a movement within the Democratic Party that is genuinely pro-life and pro-family, that appeals to Catholics, other Christians and all people of good will, on the basis of our common, natural reason, in support of a consistent ethic of life, the dignity of the human person and the common good.

Its ideas would be drawn from Catholic moral and social teaching on issues such as abortion, marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, euthanasia, as well as policies concerning the economy, the environment, foreign relations and more.

Building a movement within the Democratic Party that is genuinely informed by Catholic principles might seem far-fetched. It certainly goes beyond the more limited approach of worthwhile groups such as Democrats for Life and far beyond the questionable methods of liberal activist groups such as Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. But the political research indicates that there is a constituency for these ideas.

In the case of Proposition 8, 70% of blacks and 53% of Latinos voted in favor of banning homosexual “marriage” — substantially better than other groups.

More important, survey results from the 2004 Democratic Convention showed that the attitudes and values of the Democratic Party leadership are much more liberal than the party’s rank and file on social issues such as abortion, sex education and freedom of religion.

In other words, the Democratic leadership is out of touch with their followers.

As Mark Stricherz has shown in his book Why the Democratic Party Is Blue, changes in the party’s nominating rules in 1972 have ensured that party leaders would be drawn from the more affluent, elitist — and liberal — sectors of society and be unreflective of the party’s grassroots, which value traditional values and economic security. (The other part of the story is how the Democratic Party has failed to protect the working and middle classes against a rapacious financial class. But that’s another story.)

Of course, when you talk about power in our society, it usually leads to money, which is the real reason that pro-abortion, pro-homosexual “marriage” forces hold sway over the Democrats.

The so-called “Limousine Liberal” set that arose during the radical ’60s and has dominated ever since — Hollywood celebrities, homosexual activists, upper-middle class feminists and pro-abortion ideologues, even culturally liberal hedge fund executives — control the party through their contributions. That’s the main reason traditional values have been expunged from the party.

There have been many organizations that have arisen over the years within each party to promote specific points of view. One successful example was the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a group devoted to promoting more fiscally conservative policies within that party. In the ’90s, the DLC claimed Bill Clinton as a standard-bearer.

Similarly, one or more groups devoted to identifying, training, developing, and running candidates in both parties who are devoted to the full range of Catholic social teaching should be launched, with funding adequate to the task. It would take another article to describe the nuts and bolts of such a group. But the operational models exist; all it would take is the will and the money to make it happen.

But there is even more at stake: While in the short run it makes sense to exploit the gap between the more tradition-minded minority and ethnic grassroots of the Democratic Party, and the more affluent, educated and liberal elites, in the long run, it will be necessary to convert the elites, as well.

Obama won large majorities of young and highly educated voters. These two voting blocs represent the future, and to reach them, the Church’s long-term project, the New Evangelization, must find a way to make clear the underlying ethical principles that undergird Catholic moral teachings, and communicate them in ways that will appeal to people who are liberal, who are most concerned — at least on the surface — about human dignity.

Right now the Catholic “culture of life” strategy has been to ally with Bible Christians, who have a visceral and simple attraction to life and family issues.

They are an important ally in the culture war.

But their approach is limited, often relying on harsh language about eternal damnation that fails to distinguish the sinner from the sin. They aren’t good at articulating the ethical reasoning behind the moral law, which is based on love and human dignity.

Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body is one example of how the Church has developed new insights that go far beyond “dos” and “don’ts” to reveal the beauty and dignity of marriage. This is missing from most current debates.

As Pope Benedict XVI has said, the Church must do a much better job bridging the gap between faith and culture.

Until that’s done, the most educated and creative sectors of society will look to secular idealists like Barack Obama to lead them to earthly salvation. The populace is dissatisfied, and they are yearning for a new public philosophy. The country has clearly responded to Barack Obama’s call for all citizens to work for the common good, in a spirit of hope and unity.

There is something universal (small-c “catholic”) about his approach, his manner of speaking and reasoning. Obama never vents and always appeals to our better natures.

With the collapse of every secular ideology in the 20th century — especially communism — and now with the crisis in free-market capitalism in the 21st century, there is a vacuum, and Obama is filling it. But his progressive humanitarianism is flawed; it lacks a vertical dimension. Without a transcendent anchor, the contradictions of Obama’s secular vision, especially the failure to respect life from conception to natural death, and its failure to fully respect the human person, will cause it to collapse.

At that point, we can only guess what new secular ideology will arise to take its place.

All the more reason for the Church to redouble its efforts to reach those groups that will determine the future of our culture. In the short run, that means figuring out how to make a place for itself in the Democratic Party.

Angelo Matera is editor

of Godspy in New York.