Courting the religious rightFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
With the final presidential debate over, it now appears that Senator Barack Obama will simply run out the clock on Senator John McCain and win the presidential election.
His appearance tonight (Thusday, October 16) here at the Al Smith Dinner may indicate how he intends to handle conservative religious voters in consolidating his support. The Al Smith Dinner is one of American Catholicism's most glittering events -- a massive fundraiser for the Catholic charities of the Archdiocese of New York. The dinner honours Al Smith, governor of New York in the 1920s and Democratic candidate for president in 1928. (He lost to Herbert Hoover, but was the first Catholic to be nominated by a major party for president.)
Presided over by the cardinal archbishop, last year's dinner was addressed by Tony Blair. In most presidential election years, both major party candidates are invited to appear -- both JFK and Richard Nixon appeared in 1960. And the tradition has continued: Both Senators Obama and McCain will be on hand tonight.
While the remarks tonight are expected to be lighthearted and not too political, it is likely that Mr. Obama will try to use the occasion to present himself as a friend to religious and socially conservative voters. Mr. Obama knows that in this Democratic year he was always likely to win -- since the Second World War, only once have Americans elected the same party to the presidency three consecutive times. Given the deep unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the financial conflagration of recent weeks, the Democratic candidate should be cruising to a landslide. Yet even now, Mr. Obama is just flirting with 50% of the popular vote. Part of that weakness is the Democrats' lack of support among conservative religious voters.
So Mr. Obama has worked hard to present himself as religious and open to religious voters who have broken massively for Republicans in the last two elections. The most important issue for those voters is abortion, and tonight, before an influential Catholic audience, he will face a formidable task. Can he persuade pro-life voters to vote for him?
The challenge is steep; on abortion, Mr. Obama is the most extreme nominee to date -- far more than even Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Joe Biden. He is against the ban on partial-birth abortion. He is against parental-notification for minors seeking abortion. He is against "conscience-clauses" for pro-life doctors who refuse to do abortions. He favours federal funding of abortions. He has said that his first act as president would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would eliminate by federal statute any abortion regulations in all of the 50 states.
And then there is the controversy over the "born-alive" act -- a federal law that mandates full legal protection for any child that survives a late term abortion. It passed the U.S. Senate unanimously. Mr. Obama was not in the United States Senate at the time, but he voted against a nearly-identical law in the Illinois Senate in 2003. While he often says that he wants to reduce the number of abortions -- who doesn't? -- in adopting the most extreme pro-abortion policy in presidential history, Mr. Obama puts an insuperable obstacle between himself and pro-life voters. No doubt, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York will allude to that this evening.
Given the number of factors in his favour, and his explicit desire to make room for Catholic voters, religious voters and pro-life voters in his campaign, the substance of his abortion policy is extreme and counter-productive. It puts him far outside the American mainstream.
So why does he adopt it? Voters can only conclude that Mr. Obama believes in his policy sincerely.
In the close elections of 2000 and 2004, conservative religious voters made the difference against the Democrats. Mr. Obama doesn't need them this year, but if he wishes to expand his Democratic base and truly change the dynamics of American presidential politics, he will need to do more than be charming. As president, he will have to offer more than words to conservative religious voters.
Father Raymond J. de Souza. "Courting the religious right." National Post, (Canada) October 16, 2008.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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