09.15.12: The Power of Political Communion

Sister Simone Campbell, the director of a national Catholic social justice organization, at the Democratic convention.

By Molly Worthen

AS the 2012 presidential race enters the homestretch, both parties vow that this election is not just a choice between different policies. It is a cosmic decision between “two different visions, two different value sets,” as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Behind the competing catchphrases lurks another contest, one that illuminates this war of worldviews. It is a tale of two Catholicisms.

In Charlotte, N.C., the Democrats challenged the altar-boy-cum-vice-presidential-nominee Paul D. Ryan’s bid for the office of Catholic in chief. They invited Sister Simone Campbell, a social activist and one of the “nuns on the bus” who toured the country protesting Mr. Ryan’s budget, to assure voters that Republican fiscal proposals violate Catholic teachings as well as “our nation’s values.” The crowd roared — who doesn’t love a feisty nun? Yet her appearance seemed largely symbolic. Mr. Biden, the most prominent Catholic on the convention roster, made no mention of his faith. While Republicans have celebrated Mr. Ryan’s religion ever since Mitt Romney chose his “faithful Catholic” running mate last month, the Democrats weren’t sure that they wanted God in the campaign at all, let alone the Church of Rome.

Allowing Republicans to claim the mantle of Catholicism might cost the Democrats the election. As commentators have noted, Catholics may be the nation’s most numerous swing voters. Over the past few decades, Democratic leaders have alienated voters in one of the party’s historically strong constituencies. Through a series of ideological moves and cultural misjudgments, they have also cut themselves off from a rich tradition of liberal Catholic thought at a time when American culture requires politicians to articulate a mission that inspires religious and secular voters alike.

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Image credit: Doug Mills/NYT