KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Did Ronald Reagan ever face a backlash from some of his base like we’re seeing on this HHS mandate issue?
PAUL KENGOR: Two points on that:
First, I’d hesitate to describe the Catholic backlash against Obama as a backlash from his base, even some of his base. Sure, Obama won a majority of Catholic voters in November 2008; those voters effectively made him president. However, many of those Catholic voters are oblivious Catholics, apathetic Catholics, and self-identified Catholics who are not very serious about their faith and the Church’s teachings. Aside from them, to be fair, there are Obama-voting Catholics who are serious Catholics but liberal/“social-justice” Catholics who thumb their noses at the Church’s teachings on moral issues such as abortion and contraception. Still, too, some of the Obama-voting Catholics are old-time, elderly, blue-collar Catholics who vote Democrat because their union told them to do so 50 years ago. This latter group is enormously frustrating. They’re super-conservative, but they vote Democrat because that’s what they’re supposed to do. They will do so until the day they die.
That said, when you break down the data on how Catholics voted in November 2008, you see that faithful, weekly-Mass-going Catholics voted decisively against Obama. And if you surveyed daily communicants — that is, daily Mass-goers — you’d find an even higher percentage who voted against Obama. Even deeper, if you survey daily Mass-goers under the age of 50, you’d think you were at CPAC. These are the “John Paul II Catholics,” the “Evangelium Vitae Catholics.”
I should add that my categories also apply to priests. The good news is that the future Catholic Church is much more loyal to the Church’s teachings on matters such as abortion and contraception — certainly more loyal than the old guard.
Second, Reagan never faced a huge backlash from his base, though he did occasionally get conservative criticism. To cite one important example, certain leading conservatives were worried that Reagan was being duped by Mikhail Gorbachev and was giving away the store to the Soviet leader. They were the subject of a very interesting New York Times magazine piece in January 1988, entitled, “The Right against Reagan.”
LOPEZ: Is there anything from Reagan’s record that might be instructive to the sitting president?
KENGOR: Well, yes, but I doubt Obama will listen.
Reagan did indeed have a major area of disagreement with the Catholic bishops. It was over Reagan’s pursuit of the MX missile and the whole nuclear-freeze debate. The leader among the bishops was Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Reagan’s point-man in communicating with the bishops was Bill Clark, the head of his National Security Council, a very faithful Catholic, and a good man. Clark carefully worked with the bishops. Clark even brought in an old Catholic friend, the great Clare Boothe Luce, who also worked with the bishops. They all worked extremely well together, coming to an agreement in April 1983. Cardinal Bernardin ultimately told the New York Times that he believed the bishops had in fact “misunderstood” the Reagan administration. He credited Clark with clarifying the administration’s position. Clark had made clear to him that Reagan nuclear policy was guided by “compelling moral considerations.”
In short, Reagan worked with the bishops. He liked them. He liked the Catholic Church. I would even say that Reagan loved the Catholic Church. His father had been Catholic, and Reagan was very sympathetic to Catholicism. I record an example in one of my books where Reagan in the spring of 1989 told a group of visiting Poles that he considered John Paul II his “best friend.” And if John Paul II wasn’t literally his best friend, Bill Clark was one of them. Reagan’s brother and sister-in-law were daily communicants.
In other words, Reagan wanted to be on the same team as the bishops. He respected their moral authority and thinking. They were kindred souls.
Obama, on the other hand, could care less. Ditto for his chief advisers — folks like David Axelrod. For Obama, the promotion and preservation of “abortion rights” is where his heart is. He’s a true believer. He thinks that Catholics and their Church are flatly wrong on the abortion issue. He thinks they’re Neanderthals. He has no desire for common ground on this issue. If he decides to seek common ground, it will be strictly for political calculation.