Minority Catholics Help Obama's Approval Ratings

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On Sunday, President Obama delivers the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. It's been a controversial invitation because it's a Catholic school, and Obama supports a woman's right to have an abortion. Polls show Catholics are among the president's strongest supporters. That's due mostly to minority Catholics.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Both Mr. and Mrs. Obama will be delivering commencement addresses this weekend. The president is at Notre Dame on Sunday for what turned out to be a controversial invitation. The school is Catholic and he supports a woman's right to have an abortion. Grier Hannon of Mishawaka, Indiana is majoring in theology and philosophy. She is going to the graduation ceremony, though not with any great enthusiasm.

Ms. GRIER HANNON (Student, Notre Dame): I think it's really inappropriate for a Catholic university to be honoring a politician who has used his office and has campaigned to advance abortion rights in this country.

INSKEEP: Still, many Notre Dame students support having a speech by the president, who will also receive an honorary degree. Here is senior class valedictorian Brennan Bollman of St. Joseph, Michigan.

Ms. BRENNAN BOLLMAN (Valedictorian, Notre Dame): I think that as a university our prime goal is to educate minds and to engage all perspectives in doing that. And so this is a place where we should be able to have thoughtful conversation, where we should be able to hear all perspectives.

INSKEEP: So that's the debate at Notre Dame. If you take that conversation nationwide you find that polls show American Catholics are among Mr. Obama's strongest supporters. That's despite their differences on abortion and other issues. NPR's Don Gonyea has this report.

DON GONYEA: Abortion is the primary source of the conflict over the president's appearance at Notre Dame this weekend. And the church's strong opposition to abortion rights plays a prominent role in the weekly sermons and daily discussions that take place in parishes across the country.

Unidentified People: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come…

GONYEA: This is yesterday's 8:00 a.m. mass at Regina Coeli Parish on the north side of Toledo, Ohio. Among the congregants was 77-year-old John Bender, a retired banker and a major Notre Dame sports fan. He is not happy.

Mr. JOHN BENDER: I don't know that I'll go to another Notre Dame football game.

GONYEA: Bender doesn't see how the best-known Catholic university in the land can allow a supporter of abortion to address such an important event as graduation. As for his assessment of how Mr. Obama is doing as president, Bender is unimpressed.

Mr. BENDER: Obama is a great public speaker; that I absolutely give him credit for. But I think the majority of the time he doesn't say anything of consequence.

GONYEA: Then there's Frank Despisito(ph). He was at yesterday's mass as well.

Mr. FRANK DESPISITO: I am very pro-life.

GONYEA: But Despisito is also an example of how unpredictable the Catholic vote can be if you rely on the abortion issue alone.

Mr. DESPISITO: It's not the only issue. It is a big issue, but it's not the only issue.

GONYEA: He says he proudly cast his ballot for Barack Obama, as did 54 percent of American Catholics in the November election, a slightly higher percentage than Mr. Obama won overall. Despisito says he did so because he puts other issues above abortion when he votes for president: the economy, health care, how the U.S. proceeds in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some Catholic supporters of the president also point out that his opposition to the war was in line with the Vatican's view and that the war issue should be weighed alongside the debate over abortion. Surveys do consistently show that voters, both the general public and Catholics, rank abortion well down the list when asked to prioritize their issues.

Recent polls, including one released yesterday by Quinnipiac University, find the president fetching an approval rating among Catholics that is several points higher than he gets with the general public. John Green is with the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Mr. JOHN GREEN (Pew Research Center): One of the reasons that President Obama was able to win the Catholic vote outright and also maintains very high approval ratings is because of minority Catholics - Hispanic Catholics, African-Americans, Asians, and so forth - who very strongly supported the president and still strongly support him.

GONYEA: And Green points out something else, another divide within the church. Call it a difference of intensity. Roughly half of those who identify themselves as Catholics are not regular churchgoers. If you take them out of the equation, the support for the president falls off some. It falls further if you take minority Catholics out of the mix. In fact, just 43 percent of white non-Hispanic Catholics who attend weekly mass say they approve of the job the president is doing. The Quinnipiac poll's Peter Brown says those Catholics are more conservative.

Mr. PETER BROWN (Quinnipiac Poll): The more religious someone is and the more observant they are, the more likely they are to agree with the Roman Catholic Church's teaching. Those who are occasional visitors of church are less likely than someone who goes every week or more than every week.

GONYEA: So President Obama heads to Notre Dame Sunday with some alumni groups and other Catholics visibly unhappy. But that viewpoint is not likely to dominate at the ceremony itself, any more than it dominates among American Catholics, who turn out to be far more diverse and given to dissent than their public image would suggest.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Toledo, Ohio.

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Obama's Notre Dame Visit Stirs Passions

Notre Dame i

A banner towed by a small plane is seen flying past the Golden Dome and statue of the Virgin Mary at the University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind., on April 29. Anti-abortion activists have stepped up such displays in the weeks leading up to President Obama's planned address on campus Sunday. Jim Rider/AP/South Bend Tribune hide caption

toggle caption Jim Rider/AP/South Bend Tribune
Notre Dame

A banner towed by a small plane is seen flying past the Golden Dome and statue of the Virgin Mary at the University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind., on April 29. Anti-abortion activists have stepped up such displays in the weeks leading up to President Obama's planned address on campus Sunday.

Jim Rider/AP/South Bend Tribune

A Divide Among Catholics

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life found that half of Catholics surveyed supported Notre Dame's invitation to Obama. Twenty-eight percent were opposed.

But Pew's survey also found that Catholics remain divided over whether abortion should remain legal in all or most cases: Forty-seven percent say yes; 42 percent say no. The breakdown mirrors the opinion of the nation at large, Pew found.

A small plane has been flying low over the University of Notre Dame campus in recent days, pulling a banner that pictures an aborted fetus.

Trucks imprinted with similar photos ply the streets of the surrounding city of South Bend.

And controversial anti-abortion activist Randall Terry arrived in Indiana weeks ago, promising to "make a circus" out of the Catholic university's Sunday commencement ceremony, at which President Obama is scheduled to speak and receive an honorary law degree.

It all strikes Howard Kelly, 22, who this weekend will be among the school's 2,000 undergraduates receiving a diploma, as a bit ironic.

"We're being treated as if we're not pro-life here, as if we need to be convinced about the issue by flying planes and Randall Terry and arrests and all that," says Kelly, a New York State native and architecture major who describes himself as "ardently pro-life" — and an Obama supporter.

"It seems to me that they think we're going to become confused about the Catholic identity of our school," he said.

Calm On Campus, Clamor Outside

Kelly says that on-campus debate over university President John Jenkins' decision to honor Obama has been "civilized, prayerful and respectful." But the soon-to-be-graduate knows the outside clamor is about much more than just the here and now.

Obama's planned appearance has not only highlighted the divide among Catholics nationally on the abortion issue; it has also provided a potent rallying point for the religious right alarmed at changes the new, pro-abortion-rights president has already made to abortion policy.

And it has ignited a spirited, civil and deeply felt conversation at Notre Dame about how the prominent institution should balance its commitment to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church with its companion devotion to intellectual rigor.

Some, including Chris Korzen of the liberal group Catholics United, have accused the "radical right" of trying to sabotage Obama's speech with a manufactured political controversy.

Others, like Anthony Lauinger, vice president of the anti-abortion National Right to Life, have repudiated Notre Dame for honoring a president who has rolled back the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and moved quickly to allow funding for foreign aid organizations that give advice on abortion. They have called for Jenkins to resign and have urged alumni to withhold donations.

"There's politics going on here on both sides," says Notre Dame Law School professor Rick Garnett, who opposes the university's plan to give Obama an honorary degree — the ninth president to receive such an award.

"But it's a mistake to equate concerns about the invitation with merely partisan politics," he says. "People are genuinely conflicted."

Catholics, And Country, Conflicted

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life found that half of Catholics surveyed supported Notre Dame's invitation to Obama. Twenty-eight percent were opposed.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs pointedly referred to the poll Tuesday when asked about the Notre Dame controversy. In the administration's first real push-back to critics of the president's appearance, Gibbs also noted that 23 student groups had sent a letter supporting Obama's appearance and honorary degree to university President Jenkins, who is a priest of the Holy Cross, the religious order that founded Notre Dame in 1842.

Earlier, a coalition of 11 student groups, which has since received university permission to hold an on-campus prayer demonstration as an alternative to participating in commencement, had sent a similar letter opposing the honor. Protests not sanctioned by the university will be limited to off-campus sites.

But Pew's survey also found that Catholics remain divided over whether abortion should remain legal in all or most cases: Forty-seven percent say yes; 42 percent say no. The breakdown mirrors the opinion of the nation at large, Pew found.

"There is a divide among Catholics, but it's very similar to what you find among American society overall," says Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University who has written about politics and abortion.

"Generally, those who are the most religious and churchgoing, no matter how you measure it, are more likely to oppose abortion," Abramowitz says. "The big divide is more in terms of religiosity."

And that divide has remained steady over decades, he says, despite protests and posters, arrests and, even, some abortion-clinic bombings.

The only change? The issue has become more politicized, he says, and much more strongly linked to party identification.

'Majority' Of Campus 'Thrilled' About Visit

Support on campus for Obama's visit has been strong, as was his showing in last fall's presidential race, when he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Indiana in 44 years.

"The majority of students and faculty are really thrilled and honored to have President Obama coming to Notre Dame," says Anne Hayner, an associate director at the university's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

"This hasn't come across as a huge point of division on campus, and it has been a chance to raise really important issues to think about," Hayner says. "Abortion is just one of his many, many positions — and he stands for a lot of things that people on campus support," she says. "It doesn't have a feel that it's splitting the campus."

It has split many in the Catholic religious community, however. Dozens of U.S. bishops have denounced Notre Dame's invitation to Obama, and the local bishop has said he won't attend the commencement.

But others, including the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, asserted that Obama has "never acted in defiance of the fundamental moral principle that abortion is wrong," and that he is being honored by Notre Dame because he is president — not because of his abortion views.

They also point to a new task force appointed by Obama to explore ways to reduce abortions. And this week, 20 Catholic theologians issued a statement in support of Obama's appearance, saying that the campus is welcoming a "president who transcends race with hope and invited people of every faith to find common ground."

"We caution those who seek to disrupt these joyous proceedings or to divide the church for narrow political advantage that history is not on your side," the statement said, harking back to an incident in the early 1900s when university students repelled members of the Ku Klux Klan in a violent confrontation.

Notre Dame's Special Role

Garnett, the Notre Dame law professor, says that Obama's voting record and his record of political appointments show that he is "deeply, dramatically in conflict with what we understand to be fundamental principles of human equality for unborn children."

For that, he should not receive an honorary law degree, Garnett says.

"This is not about demonizing President Obama — it's not about him," says Garnett. "It's about what Notre Dame stands for."

Garnett says that when the weekend is over, and Terry leaves town — along with the national press and the protesters — it will be important for the world to understand why Notre Dame is unique.

"It important that there be a great Catholic university engaged in the world," he says. "It has to be willing to take tough stands and be a distinctively Catholic, great university."

Few Minds Likely To Be Swayed

When then-President George W. Bush was the school's commencement guest in 2001, graduate Daniel Moriarity knelt in an aisle with his back to the president and said the rosary in protest of Bush's support of the death penalty and other White House policies.

That scene may be repeated Sunday. No one knows, but everyone on campus seems to be praying for a peaceful day and a quick exit by Terry and outside interest groups that have promised to line the streets leading to the university with thousands of protesters.

"I'm expecting to hear a really great speech from our president," says graduating student Kelly, "and other groups will have a powerful, prayerful gathering to show their feelings."

Mike Fichter, president of Indiana Right to Life, is also looking for a peaceful Sunday — and has been explicit in separating his group from the more incendiary tactics of Terry and his followers.

"Indiana Right to Life is not directly engaged in protests planned at the commencement ceremony," he said. "We are encouraging individuals to express their concerns directly to the university, which thousands have done, and we've also expressed our concerns — especially over the honorary degree — in a resolution sent to the university.

"We are being very clear that we want individuals to express their concerns in a way that is civil, that is respectful, and that leads to a long-term dialogue not only with Notre Dame but with the Catholic university system as a whole," he said.

Terry's tactics "are successful in working a community into a frenzy, and whipping up anger, frustration and confrontation," Fichter says, "but do little to foster our relationship with the university."

What will be left after it's over?

An ongoing debate at Notre Dame, no doubt, and perhaps some continued fundraising opportunities on both sides of the issue. But probably little change in the minds of the body electorate.

"Groups will use this to help their cause, but I'm skeptical about the ability of any of them to influence public opinion on this issue," Abramowitz says.



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