By Leon Suprenant | May 5, 2008
A friend just forwarded to me an article by Melinda Henneberger entitled, “Hillary for Mother Superior: Why Catholics Prefer Clinton to Obama.”
Henneberger begins the piece by mentioning that her Catholic friends tend to favor Obama, noting that “there is a lot for Catholics to like in Obama’s early opposition to the war, attention to social justice issues, and promise of reconciliation across so many divides. And his stance on abortion rights is identical to Hillary Clinton’s, so you’d think that issue be would off the table in the Democratic primary.”
She also refers to the presence of Catholics on Obama’s National Steering Committee. I note that this committee includes dissident theologian Richard Gaillardetz from the University of Toledo, who has been mentioned in previous posts on this blog.
Despite all this, Henneberger cites polls showing that in those states where this sort of data is available, Clinton’s advantage over Obama among “white Catholics” is in the double-digit range. She then goes on to give many possible reasons why this is so–some more plausible, others more asinine.
For my part, I’m still trying to make sense out of the data itself, let alone explain it. First, when we say “white Catholics” there are two variables, not one. And given the fact that Clinton has generally won among white voters and Obama has generally won by an even greater margin among black voters, it’s not at all clear that the “Catholic” variable is particularly meaningful here.
Beyond that, we’re talking about Catholics who for the most part are registered as Democrats. True, Catholics are hardly a homogenous group anyway, but it’s still fair to say that most of those who are Catholic in belief and practice have long since left the Democratic party.
In fact, to show how ridiculous this whole discussion is, the author said that among those who are “devout,” the numbers run 3-1 in favor of Clinton. In order to be considered “devout,” one must go to Mass on Sunday. So, the initial numbers include Catholics who don’t even show up regularly for Mass. Meanwhile, Clinton claims popularity among “devout” Catholics–i.e., Democrats who go to Mass on Sunday. Now I know that measuring religious devotion is not an exact science, but it seems the bar is awfully low. It’s like saying that a ”devout” or “good” student is one that says he or she shows up for school.
So while the pool got smaller when we went from any white Democrat who claims to be Catholic to those white Catholics who actually go to Mass, I think the pool would shrink even further if we took into account not only religious practice but also religious belief. I strongly suspect that we’re talking about a large percentage of Catholics who dissent from Church teaching on gender, sexuality, and life issues, among others.
But all that aside, how do we understand the apparently strong preference for Clinton over Obama? This question brings to mind a distinction a seminary classmate once made between what he called “Real Nuns” (RNs) and “Catholic Career Girls” (CCGs). RNs tend to be the ones in habits, ones who don’t sign petitions in favor of women’s ordination, and who seem to love everything about being Catholic. CCGs tend to wear business suits and are denizens of the CCD Congress in Los Angeles.
Obviously that’s a humorous caricature, but anyone who has spent any time at all in the Catholic Church readily recognizes the general validity of this distinction.
For our purposes, ”RN Catholics” would never vote for either Clinton or Obama, so they’re not included in these polls. Meanwhile, Clinton could almost pass for a CCG herself, and she certainly appeals to that demographic group. She is an “empowered” woman with an unthreatening, Christian-lite Gospel that would attract people who want the compassion without all the doctrine. With apologies to Professor Kmiec, I think Clinton is more of a “Catholic natural” than Obama when it comes to connecting with the religious sensibilities of lukewarm or dissident Catholics.
Barack Obama, meanwhile, who likewise claims religiosity as he feverishly looks for a new pastor, has simply made too many abrasive missteps in the area of religion and right to life to come off as a viable candidate to all but the most secularized Catholics.
That’s my opinion. What’s yours?