DES MOINES, IOWA -- Religion has had an extraordinary presence in the buildup to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, but Catholics have been distinguished by their silence.
“It’s part of the Catholic culture,” said Deacon Dan McGuire, parish administrator at Assumption Parish in Granger, Iowa. “We get involved in politics. That’s obvious. But as a former excluded minority ... we keep faith in our private community. We don’t vocalize it in public.”
The Des Moines Register, the largest and most influential newspaper in the state, has been filled with articles, guest editorials and letters to the editor from the candidates, evangelical pastors and laypersons about the importance of faith in caucus choices. And candidates have been appearing at scores of Protestant churches around the state, eagerly proclaiming their Christianity and dedication to “traditional values.”
But the two Catholic candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, have made few references to their religion and there have been few, if any, public statements from probable Catholic GOP caucus attendees, let alone the Democratic opposition.
“I have not seen candidates challenged by Catholics,” said Kathie Obradovich, a Register political columnist who is a Catholic and whose spouse, Jim, is a deacon. That’s in contrast to “lots of evangelical Christian organizations ... that raise money and get involved in politics.”
Gingrich and Santorum are part of a slate of nine serious Republican candidates, none of whom have been able to permanently pull away from the pack in their quest for the presidency. Polls show that Iowa Republicans’ choice is still up for grabs. Frontrunners have included Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Gingrich and now, according to at least one poll, Ron Paul.
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Like the Catholic candidates, the two Mormons -- Romney and Jon Huntsman -- have been mostly silent about their faith as well. All the others, excepting Paul, have referred to their faith often.
Catholics’ silence can’t be attributed to the idea that most are Democrats, who undoubtedly will caucus for Barack Obama, and thus are not interested in the Republican caucuses. It’s not clear how many Iowa Catholics intend to participate in either caucus, but according to a poll in November for the Register, Catholics represent 21 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. Catholics represent 19.5 percent of the Iowa population.
Two self-described conservative Catholics say that although it may not appear to be so, Catholics have been active in the caucus process.
Tom Quiner of Des Moines owns a marketing firm with his wife, Karen, and in his spare time writes musicals. He’s just finished one called “The Pope of the People: The John Paul II Musical.” He supports Gingrich, and says Catholics “are not sitting on the sidelines.” They are “energized by life issues, especially the traditional marriage issue and the contraception issue,” adding that he believes Catholics have “a sense that their conscience protection is at risk.”
Quiner said he believes Gingrich’s conversion to Catholicism “resonates with a lot of Catholics” despite Gingrich’s three marriages. That conversion was obviously not a political move, he says, because it has never been a political advantage to be a Catholic.
“We respect him for it because it was done out of conviction,” he said. “We have a sense that he has matured, that he’s a different person, is a grandfather and is more ‘other’-oriented.”
For Quiner and many evangelicals and Catholics, abortion is “the No. 1 issue.” As for other church teachings that touch on politics, he says that “as a conservative, there are certain issues on which I’ll take issue with the church.”
Kim Lehman of Johnston, a GOP national committeewoman for Iowa, is a Santorum supporter. She says it’s true that Catholics may not be identifying themselves as such, but she has lots of Catholic friends who are involved with caucus candidates. She said she believes Catholics and others should vote according to “what’s important to God,” and believes abortion trumps all other issues. “It’s intrinsically evil to advance abortion,” she said.
But like Quiner, she is less than enthusiastic about other church teachings that have been part of the political debates. Catholics and others “shouldn’t use the government to do what the church should be doing,” she said. The government “opposes the teachings of God. The government should get out of the business of helping the poor.”
She supports Santorum because she shares his beliefs, specifically “that life begins at conception, about marriage and that God is our creator.” He follows the teachings of the church,” she said, “in defending Israel, about educational choices ... and he defends creationism and favors welfare reform.”
Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops and Catholics of the four Iowa dioceses and lobbies the state legislature on their behalf, said from the conference’s point of view, “participation in politics is an obligation for Catholics. People of faith should get involved.”
Writing letters and speaking out, however, is a matter of choice and doesn’t necessarily speak to a Catholic’s commitment. He paraphrased a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Always preach the Gospel; when necessary use words.”
As for Catholic clergy involvement, Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines says speaking out at caucus time is not the clergy’s role.
“The idea of the caucuses is to pick individual candidates, and the Catholic church doesn’t endorse individuals,” he said. “We are strongly committed to classical life issues, but also to the life and dignity of the person in such issues as jobs, health care and education. We want people to listen to what we have to say and form their own consciences. It’s up to individuals as adults to choose the right candidates.”
[Tom Carney is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.]