In Good Faith: Obama and the Pope Consider Areas of Agreement


In early seventies, the Democratic Party made a fateful decision to
begin building a new coalition, as one commentator put it, of "young people, college-educated suburbanites, and feminists."
This might not have been a bad idea had the party not deliberately
stopped reaching out to many people of faith – Catholics in particular
- in the process.

The historical context of this decision isn’t insignificant. The
party’s support for the Civil Rights Movement had cost it the support
of many white Southern Democrats, and mounting backlash against
perceived cultural excesses of the 1960s exposed a deepening cultural
divide – a divide deepened further by showdowns over in vitro
fertilization, The Pill, and, of course, abortion rights. Democratic
strategists presumably believed that a smaller but more ideologically
homogeneous tent was the real ticket to success, and that socially
moderate Americans (formerly core partners in the New Deal coalition)
would be little more than monkey wrenches in the cogs of progress.

By 2004 it was clear just how poorly advised this 30-year-old
strategic shift was. It was then that so-called "values voters" helped
Republicans run the table, with John Kerry – the first Catholic
presidential nominee since JFK – losing members of his own church by 5
points. If you want to know why Kerry lost Ohio, look no farther than
the state’s large percentage of white working-class Catholics, who
voted against him by a margin of 55% to 44%.

President Obama owes his victory in part to many factors beyond his
control: a tanking economy, an unpopular Republican Party, an
opponent’s mind-bogglingly disastrous campaign, to name a few. But make
no mistake about it – without Obama’s ability to reach across
ideological lines and unite disparate groups behind common values, the
Republicans would surely have emerged victorious last November.

Proponents of the "small tent" strategy are livid now that the
common ground values which put Democrats back in the White House in the
first place are playing a vital role in the Obama government. Many feel
that those who harbor moral concerns about abortion don’t deserve a
role in helping to craft social policy. More extreme voices write off
the values of large swaths of the American public categorically,
calling people of faith backward-thinking, dismissing even moderate
pro-lifers as woman-haters or terrorists.

That these moderate voters also disdain the divisive tactics of the
religions right and are swayable on health care and clean energy is, to
the small-tenters, irrelevant. Because they don’t subscribe to the far
left’s "do what feels right" dogma, many average Americans aren’t even
allowed in the campground.

President Obama is now in Rome for an historic meeting with Pope
Benedict XVI, with whom he admittedly disagrees on some fundamental
moral concerns. Had their disagreements precluded such a encounter, the
fertile common ground that the pope and the president share on
progressive values like economic justice, concern for the earth, health
care for all, and workers’ rights would lie fallow. The pope’s sweeping
indictment of unregulated free market capitalism and support for a new
economic world order – issued earlier this week in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate – would have little relevance to U.S. public policy.

If the subject of abortion is broached at the meeting at all, it
will almost certainly not arise in the context of abortion rights
restrictions or public support for contraception. On these issues, both
men recognize the convictions of the other, and realize the overriding
importance of more positive productive conversation. Speaking with religion reporters last week, the president pointed to several possible ways to break the stalemate and find common ground on abortion:

On the idea of helping young people make smart choices so
that they are not engaging in casual sexual activity that can lead to
unwanted pregnancies, on the importance of adoption as a option, an
alternative to abortion, on caring for pregnant women so that it is
easier for them to support children, those are immediately three areas
where I would be surprised if we don’t have some pretty significant
areas of agreement.

Cynics on both extremes will see the president’s persistent support
for common ground as a political ploy intended to maintain popularity
among moderate voters. They’ll view today’s meeting at the Vatican as
little more than a photo op. But there’s another interpretation they
should pause to consider: that change doesn’t happen without the
support of the people, and the people won’t support change if it comes
packaged with hostility towards their beliefs. Mr. Obama made an
election night promise to be the president of all Americans. His
sincere and consistent efforts to speak – as well as to listen – to the
concerns of those who disagree is evidence that he is making good on
this promise.

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  • crowepps

    “a new coalition, as one commentator put it, of “young people, college-educated suburbanites, and feminists.” This might not have been a bad idea had the party not deliberately stopped reaching out to many people of faith – Catholics in particular – in the process.”

    Isn’t the underlying assumption here that young people, college-educated suburbanites and feminists are not “people of faith”?

    There are young people who are deeply religious, college-educated suburbanites who are regular church goers and Catholic feminists.

    What the Democratic party gave up on was trying to get any sort of cooperation on progressive values from the entrenched and stubbornly conservative religious heirarchies, the self-appointed gate-keepers between man and God, who have never seen a change they liked and who don’t believe in ‘progress’ but instead in keeping things the same as they have always been or even retreating into the past.

    I understand that many people respect and honor the Pope, and that he holds an extremely important position in the Catholic Church. But none of that has any real importance to the government in a secular democracy which guarantees freedom of religion and where less than 25% of the population is Catholic.

    Personally, I don’t see any reason to ‘break the stalemate’ between a religious leader of any denomination and people making political decisions. Under our system of laws, it is inappropriate for the two to be struggling with each other. The views of American VOTERS who are Catholic are important, but judging by their votes, the Pope doesn’t speak for them.

  • invalid-0

    Chris Korzen sees hope in the common ground upon which the Pope and the President stood today while crowepps sees a struggle. In fact, this was a meeting between two heads of state who agree on some of the most important issues of our time.

  • crowepps

    Yes, the land under the Vatican is officially considered a ‘State’, but the inference that Obama met with the Pope because he’s a ‘head of state’ is ingenuous.  Obama didn’t meet with the Pope because he is the ‘ruler’ of .2 square miles but because he is the titular head of a worldwide church.

    I used the word ‘stuggle’ in response to the author’s choice of words "break the stalemate".  So far as I’m aware, there is no stalemate between the government of our country and a foreign church leader.  It is futile for the Church to expect our government to use civil law and its punishments to force Catholics to follow Catholic moral codes.  It is unconstitutional for our government to force NON-Catholics to follow Catholic moral codes.

    It was very nice of Obama to take the time to make the Pope feel heard, but it’s not going to actually CHANGE anything.  There is an immense difference between ‘make women get and stay pregnant’ and ‘reduce the need for abortion’.

    • invalid-0

      True, Obama did not meet with the Pope because he is head of state but he is that, nonetheless. And the Pope is NOT the “titular” head of a worldwide church. He is the very real head of the Catholic Chuch, with authority descending, unbroken over 2,000 years, directly from St. Peter. I agree that the government’s role is not to impose Catholic teachings on anyone of any or no faith but the Church will continue to pursue protection of the unborn. I continue to pray for President Obama and that the Pope’s words and teachings will guide him.

  • jodi-jacobson

    I agree completely with the comment by Crowepps.

    A few additional comments.
    As a person of faith myself–though not of your faith–I find the following statement at best misleading.

    More extreme voices write off the values of large swaths of the American public categorically, calling people of faith backward-thinking, dismissing even moderate pro-lifers as woman-haters or terrorists.

     

    You categorize "people of faith" as though they were and are monolithic, and as though all people of faith have one view on reproductive and sexual health issues…on in accord with yours.  They are not a monolithic group and the majority do not necessarily hold views that agree with you.  This is a dismissive and also startlingly naive statement that shows either lack of knowledge of faith positions on these issues outside the institutional Catholic Church and fundamentalist Evangelicals, or lack of tolerance of the fact that on issues of debate–women’s roles, contraception, abortion among them–there is tremendous diversity of thought. 

    And though I am not Catholic, I am as a woman much closer to the beliefs and actions of the vast majority of Catholic women (and by extension men) in the American population than you are in your positions on abortion and contraception. 

    Finally, it is not as some of us have tried to underscore without apparent success that we don’t assess moral concerns or dimensions about sex and reproduction.  Rather we believe those decisions are up to the individual, not the Pope, not to President Obama, not to Chris Korzen, the USCCB or any other such group. 

    It’s kinda hard to paint as extreme the majority of the American public.

    You also state:

    Cynics on both extremes will see the president’s persistent support
    for common ground as a political ploy intended to maintain popularity
    among moderate voters. They’ll view today’s meeting at the Vatican as
    little more than a photo op. But there’s another interpretation they
    should pause to consider: that change doesn’t happen without the
    support of the people, and the people won’t support change if it comes
    packaged with hostility towards their beliefs.

    Apart from the separation of Church and state issues raised by Crowepps, the fact is that more than 85 percent of the US public supports comprehensive sexuality education, the vast majority of the population supports access to contraception, more than 95 percent of US women use contraception in their reproductive lifetimes, Catholic women access abortion and contraception at the same rates as other women in the population, more than two-thirds support Roe v. Wade, the majority of the population understands that the issue of abortion the majority of voters in this election (including Catholics) did not vote for Obama in relation to abortion, though I know it is helpful to your case and those of others who want to intervene in women’s choices based on your own ideological beliefs to make that point repeatedly.

    At a time when the rate of abortions in the United States is falling in direct relation to access to contraception, the fact that no one in the faith community on this page or elsewhere has as yet responded to requests for an articulation of goals is telling in itself.

    The President needs to be making public health policy based on human rights and public health outcomes, not the ideology of the Church. We did that already under the Bush Administration and what we have to show for it are, among other adverse outcomes, rising rates of unintended pregnancies among teens (a reversal of years of decline), rising rates of sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and rising rates of HIV infection among women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa because we made "common ground" with the US Council of Catholic Bishops and the evangelicals on prevention policy, leaving millions of women and girls unprotected in the spread of HIV and AIDS.

    I have asked before and I ask again: What is your response and that of your colleagues in regard to the evidence on reducing unintended pregnancy?  Do you suggest we ignore it as a matter of your ideological positions?  I would love to know what your goals are regarding women’s access to contraception and abortion in the United States?  To limit these?

    By ignoring these questions it is in fact you and others who are dismissing a large group of people–those who want basic health care and basic rights about sex and contraception to be driven by evidnece, not ideology.

    Thanks much and best wishes, 

    Jodi

     

  • chris-korzen

    I’m sorry if some got the false impression that was speaking categorically about people of faith here. In fact, I went out of my way not to do so – crowepps, you’ll notice that I said the Democrats decided to stop reaching out to many people of faith (I deliberately didn’t use the words all or even most).

    Your statement about "entrenched and stubbornly conservative religious hierarchies" is interesting. Yes, it might be an accurate (albeit politically charged) reading of the Democrats’ post-1972 strategy. However, I’m trying to imagine the president using language like that and still maintaining the broad-based credibility he needs in order to move his agenda. That would be political suicide.

    Jodi – if you read that paragraph again you might find that I’m with you on this one. Again, my beef is precisely with people who believe that all people of faith are the same, and stupid to boot. Here’s an example of what I mean – this is a comment someone left about this same piece, cross-posted at Huffington:

    religion has no place anywhere out side of the circus or the fortune tellers tent. It sets back rational thinking, decency, science, morality…..it is a horrible curse to humanity and it is sad that so many weak people assume they can get anything of value from ANY church because you cannot. If you are good it is because YOU are good. If you are hateful, misguided, and stupid then the church has meaning for you.

    Regrettably, we’ve seen similar sentiments expressed here at RHRC. Can we at least agree that statements like these are bad political strategy, if not profoundly antithetical to progressive values of open-mindedness and tolerance?"

    As for contraception, I think the president said it best in his roundtable with religious press:

    I personally think that combining good sexual and — or good sex and moral education needs to be combined with contraception in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. I recognize that contradicts Catholic Church doctrine, so I would not expect someone who feels very strongly about this issue as a matter of religious faith to be able to agree with me on that, but that’s my personal view. We may not be able to arrive at perfectly compatible language on that front.

    The point is that support for contraception is probably not going to be part of a purely common ground solution. However, based on these comments, I’d be very surprised if it’s not part of the president’s final abortion reduction package – especially since the polls seem to show widespread support for comprehensive sex education and availability of contraception.

    But be careful about how you use these statistics. It’s clear that many Catholic women use contraception (to split hairs, artificial contraception in the Catholic tradition) within the context of their own marriages. This does not necessarily mean that they want their children to receive free condoms at school.

    Those who don’t believe there’s a huge cultural middle ground regarding contraception and sex education should really take a moment to consider why so many Middle Americans voted in 2004 for four more years of all the socially conservative Bush policies that Jodi refers to. They should also take a moment to read Steven Waldman’s excellent post on sacred sex in the 2008 presidential debates.  This is another area in which President Obama "gets it."

  • crowepps

    Those who don’t believe there’s a huge cultural middle ground regarding contraception and sex education should really take a moment to consider why so many Middle Americans voted in 2004 for four more years of all the socially conservative Bush policies that Jodi refers to.

    I’ve considered — perhaps they didn’t "want the terrorists to win"? Perhaps they were terrified by the rhetoric threatening them with threats of crime from the "flood of illegal immigrants"?

     

    To assume that the results of that election hinged on people’s opinions about contraception and sex education (or abortion) is kind of a stretch — people polled just about the same on those issues the second time they elected Bush as they did when they elected Obama. Most people do NOT vote for Presidents based on sexuality issues because most people don’t find that a central concern in their lives. Most people want the President to run the country/ economy/ government/ military, not get involved in whether teenagers are having sex or women are using birth control.

     

    In national politics, despite the strenuous efforts of people on both sides of this issue to make this THE most important issue, this actually is pretty much at the fringe of voter’s decision making processes.

  • crowepps

    Your statement about “entrenched and stubbornly conservative religious hierarchies” is interesting. Yes, it might be an accurate (albeit politically charged) reading of the Democrats’ post-1972 strategy. However, I’m trying to imagine the president using language like that and still maintaining the broad-based credibility he needs in order to move his agenda. That would be political suicide.

    Since the entire PURPOSE of having a hierarchy is to enforce conformity and to cling tightly to the ‘Truth’ revealed by ones honored predecessors, ALL hierarchies are stubbornly conservative (although a more polite wording would be ‘faithful to tradition’ and they can only survive if they are entrenched. I’m sure Obama would never be foolish enough to speak bluntly — you’re right, blunt truth is usually political suicide, especially when it is accurate.

    And I’m not sure the Democrats did ‘abandon’ this group. I think the Republican abandonment of the losing strategy of race bigotry and their new focus on the abortion wars attracted conservative churches and the Democrats were unable to meet their concerns because they couldn’t reconcile progressive values with taking away from women rights that had been recognized for many years and passing laws relegating them once again to second-class citizenship.

    Republicans, of course, had no problem doing so, because they had been in opposition to women (and poor men, and brown people, and ‘ethnics’) having equal rights all along, and so the conservative, authoritarian churches and the conservative, authoritarian Republicans found themselves in a perfect union, marching forward confidently into their vision of facist utopia – the church would support the businessmen’s ideal of ‘free markets’ and free rein to oppress employees and consumers so long as the business world in turn supported the churches in controlling the citizens’ morals. Since both groups believe the average person needs to have someone controlling their base and immoral nature, they could sincerely believe every addition in spying, identifying, outlawing, prosecuting, shaming and punishing was doing ‘God’s work’.

  • crowepps

    "And the Pope is NOT the "titular" head of a worldwide church. He is the very real head of the Catholic Church"

    I used the term titular in recognition of the fact that 20% of the Church, the Eastern Orthodox, dispute his claim to be ‘head’ of The Church, and has since 1054.  In addition, it seems to me that a ‘very real head’ of a Church would get a little more cooperation from the actual members of the congregation, who seem to pretty much ignore the Pope’s opinions on things and make up their own minds.

  • invalid-0

    The dissenters do not diminish the Pope’s position or authority. He is the head of the Catholic Church. The Church is not a democracy and is not influenced by opinions contrary to the Magisterium. Those who ignore the Church’s teachings should not call themselves Catholic.

  • crowepps

    If everyone who isn’t in perfect conformity with the Church’s teachings shouldn’t call themselves Catholic, you’re going to end up with a teeny tiny church.

     

    The problem with this type of ‘with us or against us’ mentality, this fundamentalist insistence that there’s only one right to live, believe, have faith, is that the societies that have actually been structured this way suffocate their people until they either flee elsewhere or revolt.  In addition, no matter how much exhortation, oppression, torment or death they inflict on those dissenters, they still don’t manage to stamp out either thinking or ‘sin’.