[This article was written for the Italian website IlSussidiario.Net site and published in translation yesterday.]
For the last century, Catholics have formed a solid voting bloc of the Democratic party, even electing one of their own, John F. Kennedy, in 1960. The original party claims Jefferson and Madison as founders, though the Democratic party as we now know it dates to the 1828 election with Andrew Jackson carrying the populist and expansionist movement of the time. The Democrats were the party of the South before the the Civil War, and the split of two Democratic tickets (one southern pro-slavery and the other northern states rights) in 1860 allowed Abraham Lincoln to capture the election. Democrats then languished until the Great Depression.
In 1932, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected with the help of Catholic ethnic groups, and Democrats ruled with a philosophy of centralized government and the expansion of social programs for the next decades until the turbulent sixties. Subsequently, cultural issues pushed working-class and southern voters including Catholics toward the Republicans, and the tipping point came with Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 with his cadre of Reagan Democrats. Although Bill Clinton presented himself as a moderate, the Democratic party has recently offered left-leaning candidates, including John Kerry in 2004, who normally lose when perceived as too liberal for the country's sensibilities. In the current election, Barack Obama is running as an ideological liberal with long-time Catholic senator Joe Biden as a running mate who is also pro-choice. Obama has the political advantage of following the very unpopular administration of George W. Bush, with two wars and a harrowing economic crisis in process.
Since the 1972 Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, abortion has remained a hot topic in every presidential election. Evangelical Christians and Catholics formed a conservative alliance to keep the pro-life issue up front. Catholics have fluctuated between their Democratic Party of origin which is unequivocally pro-choice but favorable to the social justice concerns Catholics learned in Catholic institutions, and the pro-life Republican party with harsher economic policies, an anti-immigrant contingent and now the war in Iraq which was opposed by the Church. The Catholic vote, which makes up one-quarter of the electorate, is crucial for an election. Bill Clinton won a 9% lead among Catholics over George H.W. Bush in 1992; Al Gore had only a 2% advantage over George W. Bush in 2000; but John Kerry, who ran as a pro-choice Catholic, lost the election in 2004 against George W. Bush by 5% among Catholic voters after a public correction by the country's Catholic pastors for giving scandal with his pro-abortion voting record.
Although George W. Bush courted Hispanics for his 2004 reelection campaign, a clamp-down on immigration policy, including workplace raids and deportations which split families, followed the last election. Hispanic Catholics, more than a third of the faithful, were particularly alienated during this primary season as the Republican candidates vied to show the strongest anti-immigration policies, even if McCain was the moderate of the group on that issue.
Also during this presidential election cycle, a vocal group of Catholic law professors led by Doug Kmiec, former legal counsel for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, have asserted that Barack Obama is the true "pro-life" candidate over John McCain, because the Democratic candidate favors social programs that would prevent unwanted pregnances and offer more help to mothers. It is not a new argument, as the pro-life and social-justice division, exploited by the political parties, has become more unpalatable to "seamless garment" Catholics, as the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin's described the holistic approach to life issues. Although John Kerry was backed by pro-choice Catholics, Kmiec, who considers himself anti-abortion, has become the spokesman for the theory that the pro-life cause can be promoted via a pro-choice candidate with better social welfare programs. Kmiec asserts that the legal battle cannot be won anyway, since a Supreme Court reversal would only move the fight to the state level, so he argues that Catholics should vote for Obama who claims he will "reduce the... circumstances" of abortion. Pro-life advocates have rebutted this argument with the fact that Barack Obama has the most pro-choice record of any candidate yet: he voted against banning partial-birth abortions and has promised to sign into law the Freedom of Choice Act which would override any state restrictions on abortion and remove a conscience clause for health practitioners.
Throughout the current campaign, the Catholic bishops have reiterated the criteria they put forth in their letter "Faithful Citizenship", that among political issues abortion takes precedence because it is an intrinsically evil act and therefore a "non-negotiable". And just as Doug Kmiec published a book with his theory on why pro-life Catholics should vote for Obama, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput put out a book Render Under Caesar discussing Catholic participation in political life. Archbishop Chaput recently fired back at Kmiec's political reasoning in a speech to a Catholic women's group: "I think his activism for Senator Barack Obama, and the work of Democratic-friendly groups like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, have done a disservice to the church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn."