Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Obama and Catholic Voters: No Base Hit for Michael Sean Winters

At the America blogsite the past two days, Michael Sean Winters is fretting about Mr. Obama’s obtuseness (in Winters’ view) to Catholic concerns (here and here). In a posting on President Obama’s upcoming appearance at Notre Dame (the second of the two links I’ve just provided), Winters states,

What will the President say? Will he give a speech about foreign policy and ignore the controversy? Or, will he engage the controversy and speak about how he sees the role of religion in the public square? If he chooses the former, he has to make news so that the protests do not win the headlines. If he chooses the latter, he has to hit a home run. Given the poor roll-out of the decisions on embryonic stem cell research and the revocation of the Bush administration’s last minute conscience clause, it is not clear this administration knows how to get a base hit with Catholics let alone swing for the bleachers.

[I]t is not clear this administration knows how to get a base hit with Catholics let alone swing for the bleachers. Really? With 59% of American Catholics reporting satisfaction with the new president’s performance (here), a figure even higher than the 54% of American Catholics who voted for Obama?

What is Mr. Winters talking about? What, for that matter, are all those right-wing commentators and their centrist allies who have recently been madly spinning poll numbers to try to suggest a trend, any trend at all, of Catholics away from Obama talking about?

Clearly Winters is not talking about Catholics, when he states that the Obama administration doesn’t know how to get a base hit with Catholics. He’s talking only about some Catholics, those Catholics (including him) whose voice he appears to believe is the unitary, sole, only correct voice for American Catholics. In using the term “Catholic” in that fallacious (and ultimately deceitful) way in this observation about the new president and Catholic citizens, Michael Sean Winters is tacitly—and strongly—disenfranchising a majority of American Catholic voters.

As if we aren’t Catholic. As if we aren’t good enough to be counted among real Catholics. As if we share his monomaniacal focus on abortion (and same-sex marriage) as defining issues for the Catholic vote.

Something’s not right here. And it needs to be challenged. It needs to be challenged not only because this centrist discourse persistently legitimates the discourse of the far right and allows that discourse to represent itself as real Catholic or real American discourse.

It also needs to be challenged because the idea of church promoted by Winters’ observation is simply untrue to the Catholic vision of church: it’s an anti-catholic vision of church, this insider-outsider church of real, true believers and everyone else. It's a donatist church of the pure and holy, and then rest of us, the unwashed masses whose voices don’t count, whose absence from the tally of church members compiled by the righteous right doesn’t even matter to them as they worship a God who loves and creates everyone.

True Catholicism cares about those absent unwashed brothers and sisters. It does not write them off with a shoulder shrug. It refuses to play political power games with their lives, among the big boys (of both genders) who cut and dice the numbers to assure that they and their ilk will always remain on top.

True Catholicism thinks first and foremost about those at the bottom, those whose lives (and selves) are being cut and diced as the figures are compiled by the big boys (of both sexes). For many of us, imperfect as Mr. Obama is, and imperfect as the theological imagination from which his political choices proceeds might be, Barack Obama is more authentically Catholic than, say, George W. Bush, or Dick Cheney, or Deal Hudson, or Erik Prince, or Maggie Gallagher, or Newt Gingrich.

He is Catholic in a sense we can understand precisely because he appears to think first and foremost about those little folks whose lives are cut and diced by the big boys (of both genders) at the top, in games of political allocation that are all about giving voice only to an elite few, allowing seats at the table for only the privileged, and maintaining the power and privilege of those already at the table.

Lately, I’ve wondered a lot about whether there’s any point continuing this blog. I’m not sure I’m doing anything that’s particularly new or helpful with the blog—and I feel quite sure that what I do is not done better than other bloggers do it.

For those seeking gay and Catholic perspectives, and from a standpoint that manages to have a quasi-ecclesial stamp of approval even as it pushes the limits (a stamp of approval I will certainly never receive), Wild Reed does a far better job than I do of getting information out. For up-to-date theological analysis with an international focus, Joseph O’Leary is splendid. And no one is better at finding fascinating obscure documents that just happen to illuminate contemporary Catholic conversation, than Colleen Kochivar-Baker’s Enlightened Catholicism blog.

News? There are all kinds of wonderful websites around, including ones with a progressive focus and an interest in the intersection of religion and politics. I can’t compete with them.

What I can do, I suppose—and what reading Michael Sean Winters and other bloggers of the American Catholic center-right convinces me I have to keep trying to do—is to offer a voice for other perspectives and other possibilities in churches and in a culture that try to obliterate any but the officially approved voice. Someone needs to keep describing, as well as possible in season and out of season, the real lives of real human beings who are radically affected by the official voices of the land and of the church.

Because those official voices always obliterate. And in doing so, they misrepresent and even—it has to be said—lie. They lie by suggesting that the official voices comprise all reality and all truth, even when the reality and truth of lives obliterated by those voices speak clearly and loudly in a way that subverts the unitary witness of the official voice.

There are other Catholics out here in the land, Mr. Winters. And for many of us, your statement that Mr. Obama does not know how to get a base hit with Catholics is not only baffling, but it’s insulting. Because it simply writes us out of the picture, of your official picture of what it means to be Catholic, of the official picture written daily by you and other Catholics of the center, whose imaginations seem limited to power elites and power players in a way that’s just not, well, as Catholic as it ought to be.