What Happened to the Catholic Vote?

Interview With Fidelis President Brian Burch

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By Karna Swanson

CHICAGO, Illinois, NOV. 6, 2008 (Zenit.org).- More than half of U.S. Catholics voted Tuesday for a presidential candidate at odds with the Church's stance on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, despite the urging of more than 50 heads of dioceses to support pro-life candidates.

Brian Burch, co-founder and president of the Catholic-based think-tank Fidelis, spoke with ZENIT about the results of the election, and why he thinks a majority of Catholics voted for Democratic candidate Barack Obama, an admitted supportor of abortion rights.

Burch also comments on the success of CatholicVote.com, a voter education effort launched by Fidelis to encourage Catholics to vote for candidates supporting life, faith and family.

The site included a short video, as well as resources to help voters research candidates, statements issued by individual bishops, and an invitation to prayer.

Q: An estimated 54% of Catholics voted for Barack Obama, despite the strong stand of over 50 heads of dioceses against candidates who support abortion. How did Obama successfully win the majority of the Catholic vote?

Burch: The notion of what constitutes the "Catholic vote" is widely debated. While Obama won the Catholic vote overall 54% - 45%, among Catholics who attend mass every week, McCain won 55% - 43%. Clearly the main reason Obama succeeded overall was the fact that Catholic voters echoed the concerns of the rest of the electorate in citing the economy as their top issue.

They concluded that Obama’s economic policies would benefit them more, and ignored the teaching authority of many bishops who explained that concerns about the economy do not justify a vote for a pro-abortion candidate.

Q: Did the strong stance of the episcopate have any noticeable affect on the election? What could the Church have done more of?

Burch: The results of the election seem to indicate that, for the most part, Catholic voters ignored the guidance of their bishops. The results simply do not show any dramatic shift away from the larger trends seen during the past several election cycles.

One area of concern was the document "Faithful Citizenship," which was used by many organizations to improperly justify support for pro-abortion candidates. The shortcomings of the document forced many bishops to issue their own pastoral letters, leaving many voters confused. Regrettably, I believe the net effect of "Faithful Citizenship" was more confusion than clarity.

We must also remember that the bishops can only do so much. The teaching of the Church is clear, and the laity must be equally dedicated to pastoral efforts in this area. The task of evangelization is most effective, where possible, person-to-person, in a spirit of charity.

You probably have heard the saying that all politics is local. In the same sense, the moral witness of individual Catholics, in their families and in their parishes, will likely do more good than any teaching document from our bishops.

Q: Was the selection of Senator Joe Biden, a Catholic, instrumental for Obama in garnering support from the faithful?

Burch: I don’t believe Senator Biden's Catholicism had any significant impact on Obama's success. His faith was mentioned early on after he was selected as a running mate, but the campaign quickly dropped the references after his misguided statements on Meet the Press in order to avoid a public debate with Catholic bishops and controversies over his support for abortion.

The impact of Biden on the ticket in all likelihood may be felt down the road, as the Catholic bishops must now wrestle with a vice president who publicly disagrees with his Church on several fundamental issues.

Q: The good news is that three state constitutional amendments defining marriage as only between a man and woman passed: in California, Arizona and Florida. Is this an encouraging sign for Catholics?

Burch: This is a very encouraging sign, and represents one issue at least that transcends party lines among voters. For example, some polls suggest that as many as 65% of African American voters support traditional marriage. Thus the large turnout for Obama may have helped these marriage protection efforts. The marriage issue is a uniting issue, and should be celebrated as such.

Q: You launched CatholicVote.com to urge Catholics to vote for candidates who are pro-life, pro-family and pro-faith. You said in a commentary on the site Tuesday that the initiative has been a success. In what ways?

Burch: CatholicVote.com recorded nearly 4 million visitors in just 8 weeks. The 3:30 minute film was the primary reason people flocked to the Web site. In our film, we tried to convey the teachings of the Church in way that not only was educational, but inspirational.

Many Catholic voters continue to ignore the teachings of the Church because of political party or family loyalties, or even distrust of the Church over the past several years. We wanted viewers of our film to not only understand the authentic teachings of the Church, but to rejoice in them! If we want to effectively reach Catholics, we must appeal to their intellects, but also their hearts.

Secondly, we tried to connect the "foundational" issues of life and marriage to the larger social justice issues. Too often Catholic voters who affirm life are accused of being "single-issue voters," when in fact it is the very defense of all human life that allows us to honestly address the issues of poverty, health care, and the economy.

The images of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and other graphics in our film were not phony political ploys, but instead attempts to connect the priority of the issues of life and marriage to the great number of concerns that require our attention in protecting the common good.

Q: What is CatholicVote's mission and role now that the election is over?

Burch: Like all those who were involved heavily in this election, right now we are focusing on getting more sleep and seeing our families again. We do however have some big plans for CatholicVote.com, and will be making them known in the weeks and months ahead.

The new political climate requires that Catholics be engaged like never before to demand that the dignity of all human life be respected. Our educational mission will continue to make sure that Catholics and all people of good will understand what the Church teaches, and why they must be engaged in public life. Stay tuned!

Q: What are the issues on which the Church and President-elect Obama will be able to work together?

Burch: One of the promises made by Senator Obama involved his pledge to assist women in crisis pregnancies. I am hopeful that he will follow through on this pledge without succumbing to the inevitable demand by pro-abortion groups for more taxpayer money.

Catholics also have a keen interest in a workable immigration solution that respects the dignity of the immigrant, and favors the reunification of families while also creating an environment in which the rule of law is upheld.

Finally, I am hopeful that the new administration will recognize the charitable contributions of Catholic organizations and faith based programs, while respecting their religious identity. During the campaign, Senator Obama expressed a willingness to work with religiously affiliated agencies, and many people expect there to be new funding for social service organizations of this type.

Because of the huge contribution by Catholics in the areas of education, health care, and concern for the needy, I expect a number of new programs will be created that could benefit those involved in this important work.

Again, I am hopeful that the religious identity of Catholic organizations, particularly the rights of conscience of those involved in these organizations, is respected and protected in any new programs undertaken.

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On the Net:

CatholicVote: www.catholicvote.com

Fidelis: www.fidelis.org