First, a disclaimer: This is not one of those nod-and-a-wink exercises, technically phrased in non-partisan language but obviously crafted to support one candidate or another. There's plenty of that already in Catholic discourse, from a handful of bishops on down. Instead, I'd like to try to think for a moment beyond Nov. 4, to the long-term implications of these elections for Catholicism in America.
Most analyses of the "Catholic vote" presume there are three basic camps: pro-Obama Catholics, pro-McCain Catholics, and the undecided. For purposes of electoral handicapping, that's a natural way of slicing the pie, but it neglects another important constituency. This block has no candidate, no network of think-tanks and advocacy groups, and it only registers indirectly in the polls: Catholics alienated from both parties, who aren't undecided but rather disenfranchised.
I was in Baltimore earlier this week for a speaking engagement, and fell into conversation with a bright young Catholic theologian who offered a terrific sound-bite for this camp: "I can't help thinking that both parties are addicted to preemptive strikes," he told me, "whether it's in the womb or on the battlefield."
John Carr, a veteran policy expert for the U.S. bishops, has said that Catholics who take the church's social teaching seriously wind up "politically homeless" in America. Just like the real homeless out on American streets, the politically homeless are often forgotten, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.
If you want proof of the point, just look at the data from the Pew Forum about the preferences of religious sub-groups. The results for white Evangelicals, white mainline Protestants and black Protestants form flat lines since June; their attitudes haven't really budged in statistically significant fashion. White non-Hispanic Catholics, on the other hand, have oscillated dramatically. In July, they were going 47-44 for Obama; in late September, it was 52-39 for McCain; and by early October, it was 54-39 for Obama. One obvious reading is that there's a sizeable chunk of the Catholic population that simply isn't persuaded by either guy.
Here's a thought exercise: In the abstract, what would the political fortunes be in America of a candidate who actually embodied the full range of Catholic social concerns? What would happen if a serious candidate came along who's pro-life, pro-family, anti-war, pro-immigrant, anti-death penalty, pro-sustainable development, and a multi-lateralist in foreign policy concerned with religious freedom and a robust role for believers in public life? My hunch is that such a candidate could be attractive to a broad cross-section of moderates and independents. The machinery of both major parties, however, appears almost designed to prevent such a person from ever being nominated.
Agreed. And it bugs me.
In a post today, Deacon Greg said he too falls into this "politically homeless" category.