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Bush’s Catholic-courting will backfire in hard times


Halfway through the Clinton era, a half-dozen journalists who specialized in religion were headed along the White House corridor to an Oval Office interview with the president when one remarked cynically, “We know why we’re here.”

Politics, plain and simple.

And in we went.

There’s a lesson there for all those Catholics, including archbishops, suddenly agog at the fawning attention being paid to them by the White House.

The Catholic-wooing has not gone unnoticed in Washington. The New Republic and The Washington Post have both recently written about how Bush, looking to reelection in 2004, has gone a’courting. The Post’s Thomas Edsall compares the Bush administration’s making nice with conservative Catholics to largely successful efforts by Republicans in the 1970s and ’80s to woo Southern evangelicals to the party.

The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza actually heard Bush espousing Catholic social doctrine at the John Paul II Cultural Center dedication in what Lizza called “an obscure corner of Washington.”

“The culture of life is a welcoming culture,” Bush said. “In the culture of life we must welcome the stranger. We must comfort the sick. We must care for the aged. We must welcome the immigrant. … We must defend in love the innocent child waiting to be born.”

So, what are we to make of this (from the former governor of a state that leads all others in executions)?

This is Bush verging on smart. Smart from a political standpoint.

The math, based on recent data, goes something like this. There are x number of Catholics, and y number, who go to church on Sunday, are, the Bushies believe, disproportionately inclined to vote Republican -- for they are socially conservative on issues like abortion and gay rights.

Bush may have used a lot of Catholic buzzwords at the John Paul II Center, but is he willing to sink any political capital into that issue? Doubtful. Bush is going to do as much for conservative Catholics as his father did for the Christian Coalition. Nothing. It’s just talk.

What Bush perceives as conservative in Catholics may not be everything he thinks. When it comes to social issues, Bush is set directly against much that is bedrock Catholic social teaching. (See Neve Gordon’s article, page 19, on Bush as Notre Dame’s commencement speaker.)

Further, as our Hispanic presence grows, we Catholics are not necessarily a homogeneous bloc lined up for Communion on Sundays. There are many enlightened Catholics right across the political spectrum.

Bush won’t discover the downside of his efforts, though, until the economic downturn hits home, and hard-working people are looking for safety nets. That’s when Bush may lose his appeal to many Catholics he now views as conservative.

Lower middle-class Americans may be conservative on some things: personal comportment, for instance, or roles within the family, including gender roles and the like. But these social conservatives also have a highly attuned sense of fairness, of what is the correct way to treat people. Unfortunately, compassion in Republican-speak doesn’t translate into common good.

The Republicans can’t handle serious economic downturns. Every action that must be taken to protect decent, hard-working people when serious recession hits is an act that is anathema to conservatives and Republicans alike. Yet part of being a Catholic believer is believing in a kind of fairness and justice that will always escape this administration’s ken.

When Bush has a recession on his hands, Americans will see Bush and his conservativism for what it is -- the actual, practical, callous conservativism that, since the Reagan era (and Clinton signing the “welfare reform act”), has erased all the nation’s social safety nets.

So, when the economic chips are down, those praying with Bush “in an obscure corner of Washington” will know why he was there.

Politics, plain and simple.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001