When I was at Catholic school, I wondered how our basketball players, who crossed themselves before every free throw, could lose to a public school. Wasn't God on the good guys' side?
George W. Bush isn't the type to entertain such doubts. In the same way he turned his drinking over to God on his 40th birthday, he turned his presidency over to him after Sept. 11. Asked whether he consulted his father about Iraq, he said he hadn't, preferring to consult with his "higher father." That's why Bush will never admit a mistake. If your initial decision is the result of divine guidance, inflexibility becomes an act of faith.
Bush's hotline to heaven is one reason the churchgoing vote has proved such an elusive prize for John Kerry. As a former altar boy who carries a rosary, Kerry might have thought he had a shot at the faithful. He needs them. Regular churchgoers are regular voters, and more than 70% of all voters want a president grounded in religion. In many swing states, the Catholic vote could make the difference. So last week, while Kerry went goose hunting in Ohio, Bush went Catholic hunting in Pennsylvania, going for a private, but well-publicized, visit with the archbishop of Philadelphia.
John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic to win the presidency, had to reassure the electorate that Catholicism would play no part in his public policy. Forty years later, running against an evangelical who claims to be guided by the Almighty, Kerry has to reassure the electorate that it would. Early on, Bush strategist Karl Rove enlisted Catholic academic Deal Hudson to advise the White House how to get more of the Catholic vote. When it turned out Bush would be facing a Catholic, Hudson set upon a brilliant scheme: Rather than appeal directly to the laity, he would get the bishops to condemn Kerry for being a secular Catholic at odds with the church on abortion.
When Hudson's multiple marriages ending in annulments and an earlier affair with a student became public, he quit advising Rove. But his vision lives on. Two weeks ago, at the request of a high-ranking Vatican official, an American expert on church doctrine wrote a letter condemning Kerry as a "heretic" who should be excommunicated. Just last week, the bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling, W. Va., sent letters to 86,000 Catholics warning that it would be a "grave evil" to vote for someone who condoned legal abortion. Several bishops said if Kerry came to Mass, they would deny him Communion.
The threat alone is crippling. My grandmother, who divorced her alcoholic husband, had to sit in her pew while others climbed over her to get to the Communion rail. She was a pariah in the parish, so stricken by her exclusion that she eventually stopped going to church altogether.
Kerry supporters among the Catholic hierarchy have mostly remained silent. It's easy to see why. The gentle Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said he felt "uncomfortable" with what some of his fellow bishops were doing. For his trouble, he got hit with an ad in the Washington Times with a picture of Jesus being crucified under the headline, "Cardinal McCarrick, Are You Comfortable Now?"
Following a decade during which the bishops squandered much of their authority mishandling their own moral crisis, this would seem the wrong moment for them to go into politics. Their lawyers must have figured out that you can lose your tax-exempt status for endorsing a candidate, but not for excommunicating one. In the process, they've become the worst kind of cafeteria Catholics, choosing abortion while ignoring church doctrine on social justice, the death penalty (as governor of Texas, Bush led the Western world in executions) and war (on which God has sent a distinctly different signal to the pope). By singularly obsessing over abortion, the church runs the risk of becoming just one more special interest group, the NRA of the soul.
To fight the fatwah, the reticent Kerry has tried a little emoting. Last Sunday, Kerry quoted Scripture, sang "Amazing Grace" and swayed at a church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For once, he pushed back against those who say he's sinning: "I love my church. I respect the bishops, but I respectfully disagree."
But Kerry can't go prayer-to-prayer with Bush. Catholics follow the warning of Jesus, as reported by Matthew: "When thou prayest, enter into thy closet." Not to mention the instruction to render unto Caesar and God, separately. If politicians were exempt from these strictures, no one wrote it down.
It may be that the bishops can shepherd the flock into Republican pastures. Their message is one that instills the deepest fear of all: While Bush and Dick Cheney go around saying we'll all be killed by terrorists if we vote for Kerry, the bishops claim we'll all go to hell. This may help explain why late Kerry-leaning deciders are having such trouble making up their minds.