Grass-Roots Efforts Made a Difference in Vote 2004

PITTSBURGH — Jacqueline Halbig took time off from work this fall to join a group of political volunteers here. They went door to door and made hundreds of phone calls for their candidate.

Halbig and some 35 others were part of a grass-roots movement of people who saw much at stake in the 2004 presidential election, including the future of Roe v. Wade.

“People were coming to me. They had never done any volunteering before for any campaign,” Halbig said. “But they became concerned about values, and they became involved to work real hard to get this president (re-)elected. There was almost a life-and-death sense of importance.”

Apparently, it hasn't escaped the notice of the Republican Party that many Americans are fed up with a popular culture that degrades their values. For the 2004 campaign, the party had a volunteer team of 3,000 Catholic team leaders and put 52,000 volunteers into the field nationwide to get out the Catholic vote.

On the Sunday before Election Day in 12 battleground states, those volunteers — including Halbig's group — placed 76,000 voter guides on the windshields of cars at Catholic churches during Mass.

Catholics made up some 27% of voters Nov. 2, and 52% of them voted for the president.

Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, said Republicans were successful with faithful Catholics because “they had a track record on the social issues, the non-negotiable issues that the Catholic Kerry couldn't match.” Ruse calls Bush “the most pro-life president we've ever had, and he had a track record to prove that on judges, on partial-birth abortion” and on de-funding the United Nations Population Fund, which has supported regimes that have forced abortions and sterilization on women. “He also came out in support of the Federal Marriage Amendment, which had great support from the laity and the bishops.”

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry — who spoke about the need to put his faith into action yet promised to expand destructive embryonic stem-cell research — was the only one of three major-party Catholic presidential candidates in history not to win the Catholic vote.

“He forced many priests and bishops to correct some of the errors that he was spreading about being able to disagree on issues such as life,” said Michael Hernon of Steubenville, Ohio, one of the organizers of the Catholic vote in that battleground state. “Priests realized that abortion is not a negotiable issue.”

Morality on Ballot

Father Frank Pavone recognized the effects of the grass-roots morality campaign. The leader of Priests for Life had encouraged many readers of his biweekly email column to participate.

“I would like to hear more about the kinds of activities you engaged in for the election, because I am preparing a report on what Catholics did nationwide, and will be able to present an overall picture of this activity to those who serve us in public office,” he wrote to supporters Nov. 15.

The grass-roots campaign wasn't the only factor at play, of course. Hernon, a Steubenville councilman-at-large, believes the strength of the Catholic vote is the result of an alignment of issues, organizations and thoughts.

“There were more bishops and organizations and individuals who are stepping up to the plate this time to clarify where the Church stands and to say what are the criteria that are important to a Catholic and some that you can say that we disagree on.”

He noted that all Catholic bishops in Ohio endorsed a state marriage amendment on the ballot. That amendment, along with pro-life issues, brought Catholic voters to the polls, he said.

In New Jersey, Father Michael Manning, coordinator of Respect Life Ministries for the Diocese of Trenton, participated in a meeting regarding voter registration over the summer. He told the audience that while registration is needed, it's more important that voters be educated on the issues. A group of five laymen took up his challenge and got 10 pastors along the Jersey shoreline to sponsor forums on Catholic teaching regarding life and family issues, according to one of the organizers, Robert Mylod of Manasquan, N.J.

Fighting Back

In pulpits, too, there seemed to be a new boldness. “I … made it very clear to the people that were listening that being Catholic and pro-choice … don't mix,” said Deacon Dana Christensen of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis. “Being Catholic means that we're pro-life, and I received so many compliments from people who said, ‘We've never heard a homily like this since we've been at the parish.’”

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, recognized the groundswell. Speaking Nov. 9 at a press conference of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington, D.C., she voiced concern about what she called a growing, ultraconservative lay movement developed and supported by the Vatican. She said “liberal, progressive, liberationist bishops” have been replaced by “conservative, orthodox” ones.

“This becomes the voice of the Catholic Church in the public arena,” she said, urging listeners to ponder how the “progressive” message may be heard for the next four years.

But Jacqueline Halbig said Kissling's followers will have to face a strong, enthusiastic, orthodox lay movement.

Hernon said Catholics have been awakened to a newfound voice of morality and that they won't give it up easily. “They saw in the media and in the special-interest groups, like Hollywood and the 527 groups and (Democrat activist) George Soros, an attack upon their ability to speak about the truth,” he said. “Catholics now realize they can have a voice on the national scene, and that is a beautiful thing.”

Keith Peters writes from Spotsylvania, Virginia.