Saturday, August 23, 2008

Catholic Youth As the New Counterculture

Sorry for the interruption ….

The summer doldrums have hit the presidential race as scheduled. In fact, with the nation paying more attention to dropped batons, underaged gymnasts and a new Olympic demigod who’s half sturgeon, half giant and all heart, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) couldn’t pick a better time to not know how many homes he has.

However, with the approach of the conventions, interest will soon re-emerge. I was within an ace of finishing this installment when Olympic coverage was interrupted by Sen. Barack Obama’s press conference revealing his running mate: Sen. Joseph Biden (D-RI). The reasoning? Biden would connect with blue-collar workers and relentlessly attack McCain.


Within hours, the McCain campaign had a TV ad ready to roll, which showed clips of Biden the erstwhile primary candidate criticizing Obama and praising McCain. Before the sun set on his first official day as vice-presidential candidate, Biden’s tendency to talk before thinking came back to bite him on the butt.

From this moment, I’m almost 100% positive: The election is McCain’s to lose.


Analysts like former DNC executive director Mike Siegel count on a rise in black and young voters’ presence at the polls to put Obama over — according to Siegel, by 8 points and 350 electoral votes. In 1988, I might have bought that analysis, when the “Woodstock liberals” owned college-age and black voters body and soul, and Catholic voters were more likely to give pro-choice candidates a pass.

Of course, this isn’t 1988. Tara Wall, a former senior adviser for the RNC and PA director for the DHHA, points out that “values voters” (a better description than “religious right”), a bloc which includes many blacks and minorities, is an increasingly powerful cleavage through racial and religious lines. Black values voters are much less likely than other black Americans to give Obama a pass on abortion and fetal stem-cell research in favor of getting “one of their own” into the West Wing. Boosts in voting-bloc participation are rarely one-sided; the right VP choice by McCain could pull the teeth out of increased black voting.

As for the college-age voters, a new bloc is developing that bodes ill for “Woodstock liberalism”. Call it the “Catholic counterculture”.

At one time, it was almost inconceivable for a person to be a Catholic and a Republican. (I keep remembering the old joke about an Irishwoman’s reaction when told her local congressman had gone to the GOP: “Sure he never has! Didn’t I see him at Mass last Sunday?”) But recent studies have shown that the Catholic bloc has been drifting further to the right since 1972. Cases can be made that the Catholic bloc cost Al Gore the Florida vote in 2000 and John Kerry the Ohio vote in 2004.

Democratic analysts tend to equate Catholic voters with Evangelical voters, which is a serious misread: the two blocs tend to work from different social imperatives even where they tend to share moral views. For instance, while both orthodox Catholics and conservative Evangelicals oppose gay marriage, Evangelicals start from the moral point that gay sex is a sin; Catholics start out from the theological point that, since marriage is tied in with reproduction, child-rearing and family life, “gay marriage” is inherently a contradiction in terms as well as a mockery of true marriage. The latter argument is far more defensible in a religiously heterogeneous society than the former, since it doesn’t require a view of gay people as inferior or despicable.

Another reason why the equation of Catholics with Evangelicals doesn’t work is that Catholics taken as a whole would be a natural constituency for the Democratic Party on many questions of social and economic justice if some of its intellectual leaders and supporting organizations weren’t so openly hostile to the Church. Some of this antipathy is a natural consequence of wedding themselves to positions on subjects like abortion and gay marriage that are anathema for orthodox Catholics. However, the majority of it stems from an academic secularism that fears and loathes Catholicism precisely because it remains the only organized religion capable of posing an effective threat to its domination of the universities.

All this bears mentioning because the Catholic Church in America is in the throes of a rebirth. Weekly communion is starting to rise. Religious vocations are rising. New religious orders are rising. Vibrant Catholic youth ministries are popping up on campuses all over. Catholic radio has exploded from 14 stations in 1988 to over 120 stations in 2008, with more on the way. The last decade has seen the foundation of five new Catholic universities, as well as a rediscovery among long-established universities of their own religious heritage. The Catholic blogosphere is exploding.

I should note that this phenomenon is almost solely an orthodox phenomenon. Liberal Christianity, on the whole, is dying; whole congregations of Anglican/Episcopalians are converting to Catholicism, while those from other traditional congregations — Lutherans and Presbyterians — are drifting to either Catholicism or fundamentalism. Liberal Catholics, like Gary Wills, simply can’t pull converts or get people excited about the Church precisely because they themselves are frustrated by the Church’s refusal to ordain women, marry gay couples and sanction abortion on demand.

In the last two elections, the Catholic vote has shifted to the right, eroding support for liberal Democratic candidates in Florida and New York, in the latter of which only the secularist vote managed to keep the state in Kerry’s column in 2004. Ohio, which has a high Catholic population that cuts across both the blue-collar and academic votes, went for Bush despite frantic (and somewhat ludicrous) attempts to give Kerry blue-collar appeal.

While it’s true that part of Kerry’s election woes were due to a lack of charisma, it’s also true that Catholics are less willing to give other Catholics a pass on abortion. The leaders of the revival, such as apologist Karl Keating and his organization Catholic Answers, has gotten better at getting the word out about the moral obligation to vote and the non-negotiability of certain issues such as abortion. Even more, they’ve gotten better about educating the young about why those issues are non-negotiable, going a lot further than just saying, “The Church is against it.”

This force, in turn, is creating a bloc of college-age Catholics who won’t automatically or eventually collapse under campus pressure to adopt the cant of “tolerance”, a bloc that is more self-supporting and supported from off-campus than twenty years ago. This growing bloc, in its own turn, is bound to act as a magnet for like-minded non-Catholics who would otherwise be adrift in a secularist academic culture still hopelessly chained to the “Woodstock liberalism” of Abby Hoffman and Gloria Steinem.

In other words, the young Catholics of the “new evangelization” are the seeds of a counter-cultural movement both analogous to and different from the counter-culture of the Sixties; in a way, it can be described as a corrective. They are more intellectually disciplined and emotionally secure than their counterparts of forty years ago; they aren’t seeking something to believe in but a field in which to pour their energies. They’re unabashedly American and unashamedly Catholic, and they see no contradiction or confusion between the two.

Put into the position of being a crucial vote, they’re likely to be spoilers for Obama rather than the pole by which he vaults into 1600 Pennsylvania. By nominating Biden, Obama has all but guaranteed such a role. Catholics will simply no longer vote pro-choice Catholics into office, een if they’re willing to vote for pro-choice non-Catholics. Obama didn’t learn from Kerry’s mistakes.

The Democrats are counting on a post-convention bump to regain Obama’s lead. But last time, the bump never manifested. Obama’s 1-point lead means, with the usual margin of error, that defeat is all too possible despite the astonishing success of his grass-roots campaign in the primaries. And with the final defeat of Sen. Hillary Clinton, the last best hope of the “Woodstock liberals” has selected a weapon as dangerous to himself as to McCain.

Oh, well … the dream of the first African-American president was nice while it lasted.