Democrats

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Unity was the theme during the 1992 Democratic Convention, with nominee Bill Clinton, and his wife Hillary, joining hands with delegates as they sang an anthem called "Circle of Friends."

But there was a problem in the Pennsylvania delegation, where two-term Gov. Robert Casey was feeling excluded. An old-school Catholic Democrat, Casey had been denied a speaking slot during platform debates. On the convention floor, delegates were selling buttons showing him dressed as the pope -- since he opposed abortion.

Months later, a coalition formed to explore whether Casey should challenge President Clinton in 1996, running on progressive economics and cultural conservatism. Pro-life Democrats like Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver were involved, but Republican Jeffrey Bell -- Ronald Reagan's first full-time campaign staffer in 1976 -- emerged as a team leader.

Why would a Catholic Republican back a Democrat? In a 1995 interview, Bell told me that he was worried many religious voters -- especially evangelicals and Catholics -- had already decided they had no choice but to support GOP nominees.

"Republicans, unfortunately, have good reason to feel complacent," said Bell, after Casey's failing health prevented a White House run. As for evangelicals and traditional Catholics, Republican leaders "pat them on the head," and "buy them off easy," because cultural conservatives have few political alternatives.

"Why do Republicans have to address the concerns of moral conservatives? They have Bill Clinton. They have Hillary Clinton," he said. "They're right here in Washington, working full-time to make sure they have someone to vote against. …

"Someday, this is going to cause BIG problems for evangelicals and conservative Catholics."

Casey died in 2000, after major heart problems closed his career.

Bell died in February, after a career in which he ran for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey -- in 1978 and 2014 -- but was better known for work behind the scenes helping others, following beliefs that escaped easy political labels.

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

NEW YORK -- Believe it or not, most Americans think their nation is becoming more tolerant, at least when it comes to warm feelings about most religious believers.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, in terms of "thermometer" ratings, Americans felt "warmer" about nearly all religious groups than they did in 2014. Even chilly ratings for atheists and Muslims are approaching a neutral 50 score.

But there was one glitch in this warming trend, with evangelical Protestants stuck on a plateau. Christianity Today magazine noted that, when the views of evangelicals were removed from the mix, only a third of non-evangelical Americans had warm feelings toward evangelicals. Flip that around and that means two-thirds of non-evangelicals have lukewarm or cold feelings about evangelical Christians.

"There's a sharp divide in this country and it's getting stronger. … This tension has been obvious for years, for anyone with the eyes to see," said political scientist Louis Bolce of Baruch College in the City University of New York. "It's all about moral and social issues. Some people don't like the judgmental streak that they see in traditional forms of Christianity, like in evangelicalism and among traditional Roman Catholics."

Bolce and colleague Gerald De Maio have, over two decades, mustered research demonstrating that journalists have shown little or no interest in the liberal side of this divide. While offering in-depth coverage of the Christian Right, journalists have all but ignored a corresponding rise in what the Baruch College duo have called "anti-fundamentalist" activists. Among Democrats, the term "evangelical" has become as negative as the old "fundamentalist" label.

When journalists deal with religion and politics, "prejudice is attributed to people on the Religious Right, but not to people on the secular and religious left. Everything flows from that," said De Maio.

Seeking Christian solidarity in, for starters, a few American voting booths

Seeking Christian solidarity in, for starters, a few American voting booths

Michael Maturen is a Catholic writer, a businessman, a grassroots political activist, a former evangelical Anglican priest and a professional magician.

Seeking the presidency of the United States may not have been the next logical move for this self-proclaimed "nobody" from the tiny town of Harrisville, on Lake Huron in Northeast Michigan.

"I'm a magician, I sell cars and I'm running for president," said Maturen, laughing. "I am not delusional. People in the American Solidarity Party don't think we can win the presidency. Our goal is to promote the ideas behind our party and the idea that it's time to change our political system. … Two parties are not enough when you look at the reality of modern America."

This would have been more obvious if the party's founders had kept its original name, as in the Christian Democracy Party-USA. That would have linked it to major political parties -- primarily in Europe and Latin America -- with the "Christian Democrat" label.

Maturen said the name was changed because, while the party is built on Catholic social teachings, America has become such a diverse culture. The new name does offer a nod to Saint Pope John Paul II and Poland's Solidarity movement.

"Lot's of people are pretty disgusted with where we are in America," said Maturen. "What changed my own thinking was the ugliness of this election cycle. As a simple matter of ethics, I knew that I couldn't support Donald Trump and, since I am pro-life, I knew I couldn't vote for Hillary Clinton."

Voting-box nightmare -- many religious conservatives face 'lesser of two evils'

Voting-box nightmare -- many religious conservatives face 'lesser of two evils'

The nightmare vision focuses on a stark, painful moral choice.

It's Election Day. A Catholic voter who embraces her church's Catechism, or an evangelical committed to ancient doctrines on a spectrum of right-to-life issues, steps into a voting booth. This voter is concerned about the social impact of gambling, attempts at immigration reform, a culture fractured by divorce, battles over religious liberty and the future of the Supreme Court.

In this booth the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Period.

"That's the scenario people I know are talking about and arguing about," said Stephen P. White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., author of the book "Red, White, Blue and Catholic."

Many religious conservatives believe they "face a choice between two morally repugnant candidates," he added. "The reality of that choice is starting to drive some people into despair. … I understand that, but I think it would be wrong for people to think that they need to abandon politics simply because they are disgusted with this election."

This nightmare for religious conservatives is especially important since, in recent decades, successful Republican presidential candidates have depended on heavy turnouts among white evangelical Protestant voters and on winning, at the very least, a majority of "swing votes" among Catholics who frequently attend Mass.

While this year's election is in some ways unique, traditional Catholics and other moral conservatives need to realize that they are engaged in a debate that has been going on for centuries, said White. The big question: "Can Christians be good citizens?"

Candidate Hillary Clinton casts judgment on our very religious world

Looking at women's lives worldwide, Hillary Clinton is convinced that faith ioffers strength and hope to many, while "deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases" continue to oppress others.

The Democratic presidential candidate cited her own Methodist heritage as an example of positive faith during the recent Women in the World Summit in New York City. But religion's dark side, she said, is easily seen when doctrines limit access to "reproductive health care" and cause discrimination against gays and the transgendered.

In the future, she stressed, politicians will need to force religious leaders to change these ancient teachings to fit modern laws.

"Far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health," said Clinton, focusing on issues she emphasized as secretary of state.

"All the laws that we've passed don't count for much if they're not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will and deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed."

The Kennedy Center crowd responded with cheers and applause.

Growing tensions on the Faith and Family Left

It was one of those symbolic questions that pollsters toss into the mix when probing fault lines inside political coalitions.

The Pew Research Center recently asked, as part of its "Beyond Red vs. Blue" political typology project, whether voters agreed or disagreed that it is "necessary to believe in God to be moral."

Among the voters called "Solid Liberals," one of three major Democratic Party camps, only 11 percent of those polled said "yes." People in the emerging "Next Generation Left" felt the same way, with only 7 percent affirming that statement.

However, things were radically different among the voters that Pew researchers labeled the "Faith and Family Left." In this crowd -- the survey's most racially and ethnically diverse camp -- an stunning 91 percent of those polled saw a connection between morality and belief in God.

"That number, the size of that gap, jumped out at me" in the results, said Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center.

Faith and Family Left voters are "pretty loyal Democrats, the kind that supported Bill Clinton and Al Gore. They voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and most of them voted for him again in 2012," he added. "But when it comes to moral and cultural and religious issues, they take a very different approach" from the Solid Liberals and those in the Next Generation Left.

Cardinal prays with Democrats, too

As the Republican show closed in Tampa, Cardinal Timothy Dolan faced a flock of Tea Party activists, religious conservatives and country-club loyalists and gently addressed the sanctity of life. "We ask your benediction upon those yet to be born, and on those who are about to see you at the end of this life," said the shepherd of New York, who also leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A week later, Dolan offered the final benediction for a Democratic National Convention in which 25 speakers praised or defended their party's unchallenged support for abortion rights. While covering the same litany of issues in both conventions, the cardinal tweaked this Charlotte prayer to make his point even more obvious.

"Help us to see that a society's greatness is found above all in the respect it shows for the weakest and neediest among us," said Dolan. "We beseech you, almighty God to shed your grace on this noble experiment in ordered liberty, which began with the confident assertion of inalienable rights bestowed upon us by you: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"Thus do we praise you for the gift of life. Grant us the courage to defend it, life, without which no other rights are secure. We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected. Strengthen our sick and our elders waiting to see your holy face at life’s end, that they may be accompanied by true compassion and cherished with the dignity due those who are infirm and fragile."

Democrats respectfully stood with heads bowed, even as TV crews searched for anyone who might visibly shun the cardinal. Dolan's late insertion into the program had been controversial after months of church-state conflict between the Obama White House and the U.S. Catholic bishops caused by Health and Human Services mandates requiring most religious institutions to offer health insurance covering FDA-approved forms of contraception, including "morning-after pills," and sterilizations.

While critics on left and right were quick to parse the prayer, it was highly symbolic that Dolan ended up standing before the Democrats in the first place, said Russell Shaw, former communications director for the U.S. bishops.

"It's very important to take steps to try to keep a religious presence in the public square, to make sure the church remains a player in debates about the great issues of our day," he said. "There are major players who, quite frankly, want to chase us back into the sacristy, where we're supposed to mind our own business and not bother all the important people who are working out in the real world."

The Democratic Party's leaders could have declined Dolan's offer to pray, which would have left him "twisting slowly in the wind" since he had accepted an invitation to give a benediction for the GOP, said Shaw. That would have made it easier to portray Dolan as "a mere political partisan" – which was precisely what he was trying to avoid.

Also, it was important to know that the Charlotte drama unfolded in the wake of Dolan's decision -- infuriating many Catholic conservatives -- to invite President Barack Obama to the white-tie Al Smith Dinner, a nonpartisan event celebrating lighthearted civility that will take place just before the election.

"I apologize if I have given such scandal," wrote Dolan, at his "The Gospel in the Digital Age" weblog. "I suppose it's a case of prudential judgment: would I give more scandal by inviting the two candidates, or by not inviting them? ...

"In the end, I'm encouraged by the example of Jesus, who was blistered by his critics for dining with those some considered sinners; and by the recognition that, if I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I'd be taking all my meals alone."

One thing is certain: court cases and political debates about religious liberty and health-care reform will continue for some time to come. The cardinal knows that the U.S. bishops will eventually need to talk to people on both sides of the negotiating table.

"Cardinal Dolan has pretty good political instincts," said Shaw. "In this case, he knows that it’s important to try to keep some channels of communication open. ... It helps to be able to pray with people and to break bread with them, too."

Cardinal praying in a GOP spotlight

Political conventions have always included prayers and, through the decades, legions of preachers, rabbis, bishops and others have stepped to the podium to deliver them -- whether the delegates were paying attention or not. Then Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles faced the Democratic National Convention in 2000. First, he reminded the delegates they were in the presence of God and that true prayers must focus on "moral values, not partisan politics."

In his litany, Mahony said: "In You, O God, we trust -- that you will keep us ever committed to protect the life and well-being of all people but especially unborn children, the sick and the elderly, those on skid row and those on death row. ... Give us the resolve to create those conditions in society where working people earn wages that can sustain themselves and their family members in dignity, and that they have access to adequate healthcare, childcare and education."

After that, political leaders of all stripes learned to be more careful when choosing who gets to pray in an age in which America's most divisive debates -- about marriage, family, abortion and sex -- often involve religious beliefs and practices.

Tensions have been especially high this year, with a coalition of conservative Catholics, Jews, Protestants and others challenging -- in courts as well as pulpits -- Health and Human Services mandates that require most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including the so-called "morning-after pills."

The central figures in the resulting religious-liberty showdown have been President Barack Obama and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Thus, no one was surprised when Dolan's Republican National Convention benediction included several references religious liberty.

"Almighty God, father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, we beg your continued blessings on this sanctuary of freedom, and on all of those who proudly call America home," said Dolan, as he began his 533-word prayer. "We ask your benediction upon those yet to be born, and on those who are about to see you at the end of this life."

This passage set the tone for anyone parsing the cardinal's words for political content, said Deacon Greg Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who now serves in the Diocese of Brooklyn and has been active in a variety of multimedia Catholic ministries.

"What caught my attention was what Cardinal Dolan didn't say, as well as what he did say. He kept the whole thing broad-minded, without getting too specific," said Kandra. "Most of all, there was nothing overtly political in this prayer."

For example, the cardinal prayed for God's blessing "upon those yet to be born" and those "at the end of this life" -- but avoided direct references to abortion, euthanasia or related health-care issues.

In another passage, Dolan alluded to immigration -- a tense topic for some Republicans and the Catholic hierarchy. Without being specific, he prayed for God's blessings on "families that have come recently" to America and reminded his listeners they must "strive to include your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, in the production and prosperity of a people so richly blessed."

And what about the high-stakes battle between the White House and those who insist there is more to "freedom of religion" than mere "freedom of worship"? In the most pointed lines of the prayer, the cardinal mentioned this issue by name, then linked this debate to natural law and belief in moral absolutes.

"Almighty God, who gives us the sacred and inalienable gift of life, we thank you as well for the singular gift of liberty," said Dolan. "Renew in all of our people a respect for religious freedom in full, that first most cherished freedom. ...

"May we know the truth of your creation, respecting the laws of nature and nature's God, and not seek to replace it with idols of our own making. Give us the good sense not to cast aside the boundaries of righteous living you first inscribed in our hearts even before inscribing them on tablets of stone."

In the end, said Kandra, is the cardinal could probably "change a few words, a few names, in this prayer and then use it again at the Democratic National Convention. That was probably his goal."