Stupak Bent to Republicans, Not His Catholic Constituents

Amy Sullivan was right when she wrote Saturday that “not all pro-life Democrats are the same.” Some of them represent essentially Democratic districts, and some, like Bart Stupak, represent essentially Republican ones.

Stupak, Sullivan wrote, “represents a district so Republican that as one of his pro-life colleagues once told me, ‘Bart simply couldn’t win without the endorsement of the National Right to Life Committee. So he has to end up taking a much harder line than the rest of us do.'” That says it all, doesn’t it? It’s not about religion, it’s not about the Catholic bishops, it’s about getting re-elected in a Republican district.

Some counties in Stupak’s district are more than 50% Catholic, according to data from the North American Religion Atlas. Others are only around 20% Catholic. And just like anti-choice Democrats are not all alike, as Sullivan points out, not all Catholics are alike. The bishops might represent themselves as having a lot of political sway over the parishes in anti-choice Democrats’ districts and across the country. They may in fact have that sway in some parishes but not others. Like everything in politics, much of this is about perception, or as political strategists like to say, “optics.” It’s about keeping up appearances.

That’s been the biggest problem with the Democrats’ “religious outreach,” as Frances Kissling wrote this morning and I wrote last week. It’s about politics, not faith, but when you dress up politics in religion you run the risk of making it seem like one religious group or another is dictating policy. And when it looks that way — even if that’s not the way it really went down — the optics are terrible. The optics look like politicians are favoring one religious group, or one religious viewpoint, over another.

Whether or not the Catholic bishops forced Pelosi’s hand, or her agreement to allow a vote on the Stupak amendment, which severely curtails womens’ access to a legal medical procedure, was simply based on not having enough votes to pass the bill without it, the Catholic bishops (and their allies on the religious right) look like they hold a lot of power. And while it may be good optics for them to look like they have power, it’s really bad optics for the Democrats to let them. They look like they caved to a particular religious group, even though there are leaders from other religious traditions who:

are appalled that religious leaders intervened to impose their specific religious doctrine into health care reform, not recognizing that women must have the right to apply or reject the principles of their own faith in making the decision as to whether or not abortion is appropriate in their specific circumstances.

One of the enduring problems with “religious outreach” is the question of whose religion politicians reach out to. And because religion gets politicized in legislative and policy battles, elected officials fall back on making nice with whomever they think can tip votes this way or that, not with whomever might represent a values system aligned with what the Democratic Party allegedly stands for.

People might spin the Stupak amendment as good politics to keep the “big tent” in the party to ultimately pass health care reform. But it’s quite obviously not good politics — or even good optics — for your vaunted religion-friendly, big-tent strategy to so cravenly take away the rights and health of people who helped make the tent in the first place.