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New Religious Power in Washington—The Catholic Right

August 2, 2001

From Stem Cell Research to the President’s Faith-Based Initiative, A New Report Examines the Influence of Conservative Catholics and Catholic Bishops on White House Policy

WASHINGTON, DC—Catholics are in fashion in Washington, according to a special report released today by Catholics for a Free Choice. The report sheds light on the high-powered presence of conservative Catholics within Bush’s inner circle and the Republican Party’s eager courting of the so-called Catholic vote.

“The next presidential election is a full three-and-one-half years away and President Bush is already spouting Catholic theology,” said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. “If you look at the recent campaign and Bush’s first six months in office, it is clear that there is a new religious power in Washington—the Catholic Right,” she added.

In fact, the Bush administration and the Republican National Committee (RNC) have pinned their electoral hopes on the Catholic vote, making them eager to please Catholic bishops. As a result, the Catholic hierarchy has been extremely influential on several major domestic policy issues—stem cell research, the “faith-based initiative”, voucher programs to allow federal education dollars to go to religious schools, exemptions from providing reproductive healthcare services for religious healthcare providers, and further restrictions on reproductive rights. The report details how the policy priorities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops neatly dovetail with those of the conservative Bush administration and the role of the Catholic hierarchy in each of these debates.

Ironically, in order to win the Catholic vote, the Bush administration is attempting to woo the Catholic hierarchy—including a recent high-profile meeting with the pope—which is fundamentally at odds with Catholic voters. There is a prevailing myth that Catholics vote primarily on social issues such as abortion and that they are influenced by the positions of the church hierarchy. A national poll of Catholic voters conducted by Belden Russonello & Stewart during the 2000 presidential campaign found that the overwhelming majority of Catholic voters are not influenced by the Catholic bishops. In fact, the poll found that on a range of issues, Catholic voters were more likely to stand with other Americans than with the bishops and the Vatican. Tellingly, despite an unprecedented outreach effort to three million Catholics in key states by the RNC’s Catholic Task Force, Al Gore won the overall Catholic vote. 

This paradox couldn’t be more evident than in the church’s effort to dissuade Bush from providing federal funding for stem cell research. In addition to numerous members of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States, the pope has appealed to Bush on this issue. But Catholics overwhelmingly support stem cell research, according to a recent poll by The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.

Highlights from the special issue of Conscience include: 

  • The bishops know how to play politics. Despite the devastating impact of the president’s tax cut on those most in need, the U.S. bishops were largely silent. They realize momentum lies on the conservative part of their agenda. 
  • Where the bishops are, so is Bush. Just five days after taking the oath of office, one of Bush’s first social engagements was dinner at the residence of Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. In fact, Bush has rarely missed an opportunity to have his picture taken with a local bishop. He makes visits with members of the Catholic hierarchy part of most of his trips
  • Bush is willing to bend on policy priorities to gain the bishops’ support. In late January, the president met with 30 Catholic leaders to build support for his faith-based initiative—a meeting where he explicitly linked this initiative to efforts to change attitudes about abortion rights. 
  • The Catholic Right is the new religious power in Washington. While Christian conservatives have been trying to woo Catholics since the mid 1990s, it was the 2000 presidential election that sealed the deal. Facing a weakened Christian Coalition and a contentious campaign, then candidate Bush looked to Catholics as a key swing vote. And in February of 1999, the RNC launched its “Catholic Task Force” to drum up support for Bush’s presidential bid. 
  • The Republican Party already has its eye on the next election cycle. In April, the RNC announced the new Catholic Leadership Forum as the next phase of its Catholic Task Force. Reminiscent of Bush’s strategy of raising funds during the campaign, the Leadership Forum will recruit Catholic “team leaders” to “participate in calls with policymakers, provide the email addresses of 10 fellow Republicans, call local talk-radio programs, recruit additional ‘team leaders’ and forward Republican email to five of their friends.” Many participate in a weekly White House conference call on Catholic strategy.