The President and 'First Lady'

This Dec. 8, for a change, the ballots are counted, the election is over, and we have re-elected a president.

The bitterly fought campaign highlighted not only the differences between the candidates, but also the differences among the electorate.

It was the first campaign in my lifetime in which Catholic issues so dominated the campaign. Not a week went by without talk of abortion, the Catholic vote and some bishop's pronouncement on the Communion controversy.

The two candidates — the president and the senator — had significantly different approaches to how they used, or did not use, their faith during the campaign. It is a paradox of monumental proportions that Sen. John F. Kerry — who tried so desperately to wrap himself in the mantle of that other Catholic war hero from Boston — could be so unlike him. Sure, the two JFKs shared the same initials, the wealthy wife, the war service and a geographic point of reference, but on matters of faith, they were miles apart.

Throughout the 2004 campaign, I was struck by how one candidate — a Methodist — could be so respectful of the Church's teachings, while the other — raised a Catholic — could have such contempt for those very same teachings.

I couldn't help but notice, too, their different approaches to the woman we celebrate Dec. 8: Christ's mother, Mary.

Perhaps you, too, saw the photo making the rounds on the Internet after the election. Taken the evening of the election, the photograph shows three generations of the Bush family gathered in the west sitting hall of the White House residence, watching the election returns.

There, on the end table, just behind daughter Barbara's elbow, was a framed icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Christ child. White House photographs, like Hollywood films, are usually well thought-out. Each image is there for a reason. That icon was not there by mere happenstance.

Looking through old photographs of the west sitting hall from the Johnson to the Clinton administrations, it became clear to me that the icon is something the Bush family brought with them. The White House's previous occupant had the very same end table decorated with family photographs.

Claire Faulkner, with the White House Ushers' Office, told me the icon was a “First Family personal item” and that she could not tell me anything more about it. Still, one wonders whether it was a gift from a foreign head of state, someone in the Vatican, or a friend or family member such as the president's Catholic brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Whatever its origin, the icon's placement in the photograph is a far cry from the reception that the mother of Christ received by the Kerry staff during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.

Jeannie McMahon of Upper Darby, Pa., told me of a visit by the Kerry campaign to her home, prior to one of Kerry's front-porch visits. Kerry was considering using the McMahons' porch for a press conference and had sent a Democratic county staffer to visit the home.

While looking for possible television angles, the staffer told McMahon, “This would have to be removed.”

“What? The azalea?” McMahon asked.

“This statue,” the staffer said, pointing to the McMahons' white Our Lady of Grace statue in the front lawn.

“My Blessed Mother statue?” McMahon exclaimed.

“Yes, this is a religious symbol,” he replied.

“Well, I am a religious person,” she told the staffer, informing him that they wouldn't be removing it. Consequently, they were told that their home was out of the running.

These two disparate images serve as an allegory for what happened on election night, when Catholics supported the Republican candidate for the first time in decades. Some peg the percentage of Mass-going Catholics who supported Bush as being as high as 65%.

One candidate seemed to make religion an awkward part of his life. He sometimes self-consciously posed in religious places, even in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary at another point in the campaign. Sometimes he self-consciously removed religious images from the picture. Religion seemed something external to him, something he was using as a tool one way or the other. In the third debate, when he was asked about his faith, he did the same thing.

The other candidate seemed insouciant in his faith. Is the picture on his nightstand meant to reach out to Catholics? Not necessarily. A piece of Western art might do that job better. Is it meant to reach out to Orthodox Christians, then? Not likely. It's probably just something Bush liked — a picture of Christ, his savior, and a work of art. So he, or Laura, put it in a place of honor.

That's what religion should be. It should be something that is part of your life, something in the background, perhaps, but always there.

This Dec. 8, Catholics remember that Mary, the mother of God, is our real “first lady.” May we trust our country and its president to her tender care.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray that faith in your son will always have a natural place in our nation.

Tim Drake's newest book is Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow's Church (Sophia Institute Press, 2004).