U.S. Catholics Want to Believe in Bush's Presidency

by Scott Appleby

’THERE IS HOPE for everyone and everything," writes the theologian Terrence W. Tilley, outlining what he calls “a grammar of the Catholic intellectual tradition.” Fundamental to the Catholic mind is the conviction that “there is nothing that cannot be or could not be redeemed.”

Forgive Catholics, then, if hope springs eternal for the presidency of George W. Bush. They desperately want to believe.

On May 20, Bush lifted their hopes by delivering a small tour de force of a commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. The address, a transparent courting of “the Catholic vote” that took the form of a plug for the White House’s new Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, deftly touched upon themes dear to American Catholic hearts. The president extolled love of God expressed in service to others. (“The same God who endows us with individual rights also calls us to social obligations.”)

He touted the Catholic ideal of the United Sates as a nation whose greatness lies in the compassion and care given to its most vulnerable citizens. (“We are the country of the second chance, where failure is never final.”) And he took more than a page from Roman Catholic social teaching in pointing to the inherent dignity of each person as the deepest moral foundation for “compassionate conservatism.” (“The most radical teaching of faith,” the president intoned, is that “the value of life is not contingent on wealth or strength or skill.”)

Along the way, Bush invoked Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Knute Rockne and Notre Dame emeritus president and campus living legend Father Theodore Hesburgh. One expected that time constraints alone precluded cameos by Pope John Paul II, Bing Crosby and the Gipper.

A more subtle but no less appealing dimension of the presidential rhetoric was its sly endorsement of ecumenism and religious inclusiveness. (“Jewish prophets and Catholic teaching both speak of God’s special concern for the poor.”) Bush or his writers know that the vast majority of American Catholics departed the fortress of the “one true Church” at about the same time they took leave of the immigrant ghetto. Look elsewhere-Bob Jones University, say-for vestigial expressions of the old-time religious bigotry.

Catholics in the audience were already swooning-or waiting for the punch line-when Bush delivered a mild but rhetorically effective tongue-lashing to his chums in the corporate world. “If we hope to substantially reduce poverty and suffering in our country,” the president chided, “corporate America needs to give more-and to give better.” No matter that many members of the mostly affluent Notre Dame family are in that number; Republican or Democrat, middle class or wealthy, Catholic Americans by and large continue to resonate with the broad aspirations and vision of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society-rather than with Ronald Reagan’s supply-side, trickle-down “morning in America.” No wonder, then, that “another president from Texas” served as the main model and point of reference for Bush’s explanation of his own administration’s strategic contributions to the latter-day “war on poverty.”

But just how strategic-and substantive-are those contributions? Catholics want to trust, but they will surely verify as well. Closer analysis of the president’s speech dampens expectations. Long on fulsome rhetoric, the address was short on specifics. A three-fold increase in funding for voluntary home-building organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and an additional $ ** 1.6 billion for treatment of drug abusers-the two proposals Bush announced to bolster faith-based and community initiatives-are not thin gruel. But they hardly represent a major commitment, one that would be commensurate with the “God-Country-Notre Dame” rhetoric, much less to Bush-Cheney ventures in the realm of military spending or tax cuts for the wealthy.

One also suspects that President Bush reflected far too little on the legacies of the great American Catholics he somewhat glibly invoked. Dorothy Day, for example, abhorred “charity” if it delayed or otherwise inhibited the quest for justice; she mistrusted the state; and she lived among the poor as one of them, rather than as their social worker or agent of “uplift.” She was a pacifist during World War II, and spent many nights in jail for leading labor actions against “corporate America.” Bush approvingly quoted her comment that the “weapons of the spirit” are needed to fight poverty. Perhaps he missed, or dismissed, the irony lurking in the distinct possibility that those weapons may soon be pointed in the direction of policies associated with his version of “compassionate conservatism.”

The presidential effort was nevertheless appreciated. Catholic Americans, however religiously mainstreamed and politically credentialed, are not immune to flattery. Nor have they ceased to believe in the dream of justice and prosperity for a never-expanding circle of American citizens. They voted slightly (50 to 46 percent) for Gore, likely because he seemed to offer the better chance of widening the circle of the “we.”

Forty years after the first and only Roman Catholic president stunningly embodied their own rags-to-riches transformation, however, Catholics may be warming to a president who seems to understand communal co-responsibility for the poor, who acknowledges and occasionally embraces their vision of the just society and who purports to use his insider status to challenge corporate complacency. Of course, all this could be a pipe dream, based on a few short months of finely honed rhetoric and stage-managed social programs short on solid support.

Yet, one hopes.

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