Mass. Catholics Bank on Scott Brown

Defeats Heavily Favored Martha Coakley, 52%-47%, to Snag Senate Seat

UPSET! Sen.-elect Scott Brown, R-Mass., gestures to his supporters at his victory rally Jan. 19 in Boston. Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the U.S. Senate race to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
UPSET! Sen.-elect Scott Brown, R-Mass., gestures to his supporters at his victory rally Jan. 19 in Boston. Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the U.S. Senate race to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. (photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder)

BOSTON — Massachusetts state Sen. Scott Brown isn’t Catholic or pro-life, but activists from both those camps strongly backed his dark-horse campaign.

Now, they are cheering Brown’s victory in the state’s special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant after the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy last fall.

The defeat of Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee who was expected to easily secure Kennedy’s seat and liberal legacy, directly threatens the passage of what has come to be known in some circles as “Obamacare” and signals the waning influence of a storied political dynasty once celebrated as the standard-bearer for American Catholicism in the public square. Democrats have controlled both Massachusetts Senate seats since 1972.

Brown backs legal abortion, though he also backs a ban on late-term abortion, and influential pro-life Catholics like Brian Burch, the president of, are the first to acknowledge that “Brown is not the ideal candidate for Catholic voters.”

Yet Burch’s group recorded a message that called attention to Martha Coakley’s anti-Catholic remarks which was delivered via telephone to independent voters. Burch noted that their affiliated PAC didn’t endorse either candidate in the race.

“Among other things, Brown’s victory represents the dismantling of the Kennedy Catholic lie that has held American politics hostage for too long,” said Burch, who produced the “Life: Imagine the Potential” pro-life videos viewed by millions on YouTube during the 2008 presidential campaign. “That lie assumes that in order to succeed in the Democratic Party, especially in Massachusetts and similar states, you must profess your faithfulness to the altar of ‘choice.’”

Pro-life Catholic activists supported the Republican nominee because of his clear departure from Coakley’s ideological stance on conscience exemptions for health-care professionals and parental consent for minors seeking abortions.

Brown’s victory prevents the Democrats from holding a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. If he is seated before the Senate votes on the final version of the health-care reform bill, Brown has promised to be the critical “41st vote” needed to block passage of a bill that pro-lifers fear will mandate taxpayer funding of abortion and violate the religious freedom of health-care workers.

“Brown, though pro-choice, has always sponsored our legislation. He checks in with us,” said Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, a key pro-life group with a political action committee that funded a series of statewide mailing, media advertising, and telephone campaigns for Brown. For Fox, it was an uphill battle until the Senate vote to pass the health-care bill — then Massachusetts voters gave Brown another look.

“People in Massachusetts are pretty liberal on Catholic issues like immigration, but everybody is scared that health-care reform means rationing. Once they could see that Brown was the 41st vote and that Massachusetts could save the rest of the county, his candidacy took off,” recalled Fox. “Though I’d love to say it’s because he’s pro-life, for most voters, health care was the issue.”

Catholics in the ER

Initially, Brown’s support for Roe v. Wade discouraged pro-life backing. Fox said that some key national pro-life groups were slow to grasp Brown’s potential for blocking the health-care reform juggernaut.

“The National Right to Life Committee asked me, ‘Why didn’t you call us?’ But I knew they would have questioned supporting him last fall,” Fox recalled.

Polls confirm that voter dismay regarding the direction of health-care reform fueled Coakley’s defeat. The Massachusetts attorney general strongly backed the proposed Senate bill, and then antagonized Massachusetts Catholics when she resisted calls for conscience exemptions for religiously minded health-care professionals — a position that earned a rebuke from John Garvey, the dean of Boston College Law School.

During an interview with local radio host Ken Pittman, Coakley suggested that Catholics who adhered to Church teaching on abortion and contraception “probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.” About 48% of state residents are identified as Catholic, and Coakley’s comments soon flew around the blogosphere.

“Martha Coakley is effectively saying that faithful Catholics can’t work in emergency rooms, whether in public or Catholic hospitals. She is saying that faithful Catholics cannot be pharmacists,” argued Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, one of many Catholic pundits who jumped on Coakley’s remarks.

Blue-Collar Democrats

A political liberal and baptized Catholic, Coakley won a tough four-way contest to become the Democratic nominee and was expected to cruise easily to the finish.

Instead, the election results called into question the untested assumption that Massachusetts Catholics would stick with a political successor who rode on Kennedy’s coattails. Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the senator’s widow, campaigned for Coakley, but failed to halt the shift in voter loyalties.

Tracking data produced in 2009 by Gallup found “significantly more residents identifying as political independents (49%) than as Democrats (35%).” Not only did independents strongly support Brown, but exit polls suggest that a significant percent of Democrats voted for him as well.

Phil Lawler, the author of The Faithful Departed, a portrait of the mutually supportive relationship between Boston’s Catholic clerical and political establishment during the 20th century, wasn’t surprised to see the defection of Catholic voters and believes the political landscape has shifted significantly.

Father Roger Landry, a pastor in the traditionally Democratic town of New Bedford, and the executive editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper for the Diocese of Fall River, suggested that Massachusetts Catholics experienced the same concerns felt by the rest of the country during a time of economic crisis and vast increases in federal spending.

“Massachusetts voters have been misrepresented as a bunch of elitist liberals. But the commonsensical, down-to-earth blue-collar Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan are still here, and many of us are Catholic. We’re worried about where the country is going, and we bring that same talk-show, street-corner skepticism to this election,” said Father Landry, who noted that 15% of New Bedford residents are unemployed.

Father Landry was astonished by Coakley’s suggestion that Catholics in health care should suppress their religiously-inspired moral beliefs or get out of the field.

In one pre-election homily, he brought her remarks to the attention of his parishioners and said that most were outraged, given the fact that religious orders founded many of the nation’s hospitals.

“Pro-lifers in the state began to rally around Brown, not because he’s pro-life, but because Martha Coakley is one of the most virulent pro-abortion extremists we have encountered here,” contended Father Landry. “Even Kennedy said he was personally opposed to abortion.”

Last night, as the exit poll results confirmed a Republican victory, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., vowed to push through a health-reform bill. But many Democratic Party insiders have speculated that Coakley’s defeat could prompt the party’s moderate wing to retreat from their support of the bill.

Meanwhile, Republican attention is now focusing on whether Brown’s election will be certified before the Senate votes on the final bill that will go to President Obama.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.