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American Catholics, Working Class Communities, and HRC

Posted by pocochina on April 18, 2008

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
…………Let it be

Last night Red left this awesome comment on my latest installment of Liberal Doodz Gone Wild talking about women as authorities in working class (specifically white Irish-Catholic working class, but I’m going to use my white Irish-Italian frame of reference as well).  I was really glad she had, because, y’know, the Pope’s here, and I’d been thinking about Catholic voters and Senator Clinton.  Horserace-wise, Hillary does well among Catholics, across ethnicities.   (Translate:  hey, assholes, there’s kind of millions of Hispanics in this country and they vote so we should maybe realize they exist and even listen to them once in a while, yah?)  Catholics are a key swing demographic – when a candidate wins Catholic voters, he or she wins the country; when Catholic voters split 50/50, we get Bush v. Gore.

And, because “Protestant” or “too cool to talk about religion” is still default in American political discourse, there’s this quick pigeonholing of American Catholics.  Pope hates abortion and gays, thus Catholics must hate abortion and gays, therefore they must be Republicans.  Your librul media at work, kids, because that sentence could just as easily read:  Pope hates war/torture/unchecked capitalism/capital punishment, therefore Catholics hate those things, therefore Catholics are Democrats.

Problem with that is, well, it’s a wildly oversimplistic way to look at American Catholics.  Party lines don’t fall along Papal decrees.  So, two devout Catholics voting based on Catholic values, are likely to come to two separate conclusions, with Catholic A deciding that abortion is the overriding factor, while Catholic B considers caring for the poor to be a greater moral imperative.  Kinda like, oh, I dunno, everyone else, in that sense.

It isn’t sheer identity politics with Catholic voters – John Kerry, a devout Roman Catholic, lost the Catholic vote to GWB.  Pollsters were eager to put the answer down to Kerry’s clumsy handling of his church’s opposition to abortion rights, but I wonder more if it wasn’t just that GWB played his manliness card frequently and relentlessly, and that Kerry (due to TOTALLY UNFAIR media douchery, btw) looked like a man who’d forgotten his roots.  And politically active forces are at work to liberalize the Church – I’m thinking specifically of DignityUSA, Catholics for a Free Choice, and Roman Catholic Women Priests are working openly to change gender and sexuality constructs of the modern Church.  Our Catholics A and B above aren’t likely to be vocal in their support of one or all of those groups, but they are likely to quietly agree.  My first pro-choice influence in my life was my Irish-Catholic father.

It’s true that the structure of the church itself is shamelessly patriarchal, but in a Catholic community outside of the church, women are authority figures.  Nuns – the quintessential bitches who get stuff done – would run schools.  Young upwardly-mobile working class kids go to sex segregated schools, and while there’s always a lot that can be problematic about sex segregated schools, there’s quite a bit of evidence that women who attend single-sex schools as teens or college students perform better in school, due at least in part because rather than learning the ways one censors herself in the real world, a student will simply learn a default of not self-censoring.  Parochial schools are communities, because the Vatican can’t pay for everything, so unpaid or low-paid labor of women is what holds the world together.  In a Catholic community, you learn very quickly that women do hold up half the sky.  I can’t say whether those impressions are true in the larger culture; nor can I say that they fit neatly into the individualistic goals of liberal feminism.  It’s a communitarian worldview, a little different from the Protestant rugged individualism that we assume everyone shares – but women, as Red so succinctly pointed out, run the show in that community.

And one of the marked differences between Protestants and Catholics – this rarely comes out in the states, though I was accused once of a born-again Presbyterian of not being a Christian because Catholics worship Mary not Jesus- is Mother Mary.  She may be the most recognizable symbol of what sets American Catholics apart from Protestants.  There’s a whole branch of theology known as Mariology, which is the study of the Holy Mother.  As a feminist, I’m biting my tongue not to have the longest tangent in history on the virgin/whore complex.  In the issue at hand, though, the election, the junior senator from NY is an older woman, a mother who’s taken great care to desexualize her public image, who speaks with intelligence and compassion about caring for the sick and the poor.  Regardless of theological inclination (or eventual lack thereof), this is a person with strong appeal to a person with a Catholic upbringing.

I don’t know if we think about divorce differently than our non-Catholic bretheren and sistern.  I do know that our infamous hangups about sexuality, along with a strong cultural incentive not to divorce, makes Catholics more conscious of but also more sympathetic towards the Lewinsky affair.

Speaking specifically to the issue of Irish-Catholic Americans (particularly relevant in next week’s primary), Senator Clinton’s contributions in Northern Ireland have not been forgotten, here or abroad.  It’s irrelevant to the media discourse, of course, because when HRC does something good IT MUST BE SILENCED.  However, it is relevant in the decisions people will make.

And as to Catholic (practicing or not) women – you can’t generalize, and there will certainly be Catholic women for whom their distaste for abortion or LGBTQ issues will swing them towards the Republican party  – but many, I suspect, will, after her childhood which was likely to be dominated by women, in the context of a communitarian outlook, where women do the hard work and are not recognized the way they should be, will have all of those things percolating in their subconscious when they step into the booth next week.  I’m not sure it’s possible to be a woman and not be conscious of it every moment of every day, in our society, but the particulars of the American Catholic experience have a strong potential to dispose American Catholic women towards Senator Clinton, because of lifefong experience (particularly in one’s formative years) with women in authority, while simultaneously that authority occurred because of the marked difference in maleness and femaleness.  I’m sure more than one older woman – who for most of her life was only allowed on the altar to clean it – will pull that lever with soaring vindication.

So.  Hillary and Catholic voters?  Yes, she can.


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