Bush, Pope to Meet Today at the Vatican
By Dan Balz and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 4, 2004; Page A08
When President Bush sits down with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican this morning, their meeting will highlight one of the most significant stories of the 2004 presidential campaign: the battle between Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) for the Catholic vote in America.
Rarely have politics and religion become so intertwined as they have this year in the pursuit of Roman Catholic voters. Still reeling from the scandals involving sexual molestation of children by Catholic priests, many parishioners are suddenly caught up in a clash between a handful of outspoken bishops and Catholic politicians who disagree with some of the church's central teachings.
Kerry will be the first Roman Catholic to win his party's presidential nomination since John F. Kennedy in 1960, but he is at odds with the church's position on abortion. Some bishops have said that Kerry and other politicians who share his views should be denied Communion. Rather than having to reassure non-Catholics that he will not be swayed by the Vatican, as Kennedy was compelled to do, Kerry is under fire from some Catholics for not being sufficiently under the sway of his faith.
Bush, a born-again Christian, started off his presidential campaign in 2000 having to make amends for a visit to South Carolina's Bob Jones University, which acknowledges being anti-Catholicism. But he has courted conservative Catholics and reached out to the church's hierarchy ever since to expand the Republican coalition. His appeals to evangelical Christians on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are aimed at a segment of the Catholic population as well.
Since his election, Bush has systematically reached out to the Catholic community, with frequent meetings, conference calls and contacts at the White House. In addition, say some outside advisers to the White House, there is an unusual sensitivity among White House speechwriters and policymakers to Catholic positions on a range of issues.
"There's a very high level of awareness right up to the level of the president himself about what Catholic perspectives are," said Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis magazine, who is close to White House senior adviser Karl Rove and other administration officials.
Today's meeting, however, will underscore the conflicting currents that come with pursuing Catholic voters. Bush has met previously with the pope, but this is their first meeting since the president began the war in Iraq, which the Vatican opposed. The White House requested the meeting and rearranged the president's schedule to make it possible, but it runs the risk that the pope or his top advisers could publicly repeat the Vatican's previous objections to U.S. "unilateralism."
The attention the White House has given to Catholic voters befits what has become one of the most prized swing votes in the country. Because of their geographic concentration, Catholics could determine the outcome of the election in such battleground states as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa. Recent polls show Catholics narrowly favoring Kerry over Bush.
Many analysts who have studied Roman Catholic voting patterns argue that there is no such thing as "the Catholic vote," since a group that constitutes nearly a quarter of the population is too large to move as a bloc. Catholic voters, particularly white Catholic voters, look and act much like the population at large.
Yet Catholics were once among the most loyal Democratic constituencies in the country. Catholic political solidarity was forged in the early decades of the 20th century in the face of anti-Catholic sentiment and culminated with the presidential bid of Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to secure the Democratic nomination, in 1928. When Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he won almost 80 percent of the Catholic vote, according to a Gallup poll at the time.
Since then, Catholics have become a consistent bellwether constituency, tipping toward the winning candidate in presidential elections through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s -- until four years ago, when Al Gore narrowly carried the Catholic vote over Bush, according to exit polls, although Bush narrowly won the vote of white Catholics.
"The strong Democratic constituency that Catholics were in the 1940s and 1950s has . . . clearly disappeared," said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "Catholics are evenly divided now."
Education and affluence changed the face of the Catholic Church in the United States in the second half of the 20th century and, with it, the voting patterns of its members. What once was a predominantly urban, ethnic constituency now is wealthier and more suburban.
Catholics remain more Democratic than Protestants. In presidential elections, Protestants vote in significantly greater numbers for the Republican candidate, and between 1980 and 2002, Catholics voted Democratic in congressional elections each time except the GOP landslide of 1994, according to exit polls.
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