Judging by the campaign commercials flooding the airwaves in battleground states, this year’s election simply comes down to one major issue: the economy.
With his background in venture capitalism, the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, casts himself as the candidate with the know-how to turn around a sluggish economy with stagnant job growth.
In contrast, President Barack Obama says that electing Romney would mean a return to failed economic policies that led to the 2008 financial crisis.
In many ways, the 2012 election seems to be a replay of Democratic strategist’s James Carville 1992 campaign strategy: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
But, of course, to committed Catholics and people of faith and conscience, there are other important issues: religious liberty, right to life, marriage and immigration, to name a few. Those issues have come up now and then on the campaign trail, but not as often as some would like.
“It’s a big mistake for the Romney/Ryan campaign not to make the religious liberty issue something they talk about every day,” said Deal Hudson, president of Pennsylvania Catholics’ Network, an organization that identifies and educates Catholic voters in that state.
Hudson told Our Sunday Visitor that religious liberty is a “fresh issue,” important for Catholics. Earlier this year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sounded the alarm over the increasing threats to religious liberty, with the prime example a federal government mandate that all employers provide contraceptive coverage in their health care plans.
The Obama campaign has framed the mandate controversy as a women’s health issue. Romney and running mate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have called it a violation of religious freedom. Ryan recently told an audience in Cincinnati that rights “come from nature and nature’s God, not government.”
Still, Hudson said the GOP ticket does not focus too much on religious liberty, possibly because of how it could be framed in the mainstream press.
“If that’s the reason why they’re doing it, then that shows the media tactic of framing it as a contraception issue has succeeded, and that we have failed,” Hudson said. “It seems to me that the issue is retrievable, if as a candidate you are persistent about it.”
Meanwhile, Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, told OSV that though some issues — such as the death penalty, euthanasia, abortion and gay marriage — have been largely ignored during the campaign, Catholicism has still played a major role in this election season.
|Economic issues aren’t the only concern of the faithful this election season. Shutterstock
“Bishops have played a high-profile role by attacking the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate and launching the Fortnight for Freedom. The ‘Nuns on the Bus’ focused attention on the plight of the poor and the negative impact of the Ryan budget. And Ryan brought Catholic social teaching into the campaign when he claimed that his budget reflected Catholic social teaching, even though it was criticized by the U.S. bishop’s conference, the ‘Nuns on the Bus’ and Georgetown University’s faculty,” Father Reese said.
Critics accused Ryan’s budget, with its focus on spending cuts and entitlement reform, as hurting the poor, while others, such as Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, viewed the plan favorably. Ryan himself said his plan helps those in poverty by cutting debt and bringing aid to the state level. His plan resulted in the Catholic social teaching principles of subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good being discussed in the national media.
Still, the focus has been too narrow on the economy, to the detriment of life issues, such as abortion and euthanasia, said Paul Rondeau, executive director of the American Life League.
“Everybody is talking about the economy. Having some spare coins in your pocket is fine, but what good does that do you if your rights have been taken away,” asked Rondeau, who told OSV that people’s “first rights” — to life and religious liberty — are at stake.
“To solely focus on the economy is a mistake because there are other issues that people like me, Catholics, evangelicals, people of conscience, care about. But I don’t hear a national discussion on these issues,” Rondeau said.
“Only the party in power is talking about this. When people like myself don’t hear these issues spoken from the party seeking power, people like me say, ‘What’s the point?’” said Rondeau. “If you don’t speak to the people who shape the culture, you’re not telling them that you’re on their side. You’re not making them excited to go out and vote.”
However, Thomas Peters, the cultural director for the National Organization for Marriage, told OSV that Romney’s choice of Ryan for vice president was a “huge signal” to Catholics concerned with religious liberty and other important issues.
“When the issues come up — life, religious liberty, same-sex marriage — I expect Romney and Ryan to say the right things,” said Peters, who also writes the American Papist blog at CatholicVote.org.
Peters told OSV that marriage and life are still “moving issues” that can energize and mobilize voters. He noted that polling in states that are considering same-sex marriage initiatives this fall show that voters still place a high priority on defending traditional marriage.
“The more people are forced to think about what marriage is, the deeper they go beyond the mantras and slogans. They go to the core of what marriage is,” Peters said.
The bishops in states where same-sex marriage is on the ballot this year have also been proactive, Peters noted, in releasing pastoral letters and speaking out in defense of marriage, as well as religious liberty.
“In the ensuing weeks before the election, Catholics will hear a great deal from their bishops and priests about the importance in this election for voting for religious freedom,” Peters said. “I think, quite frankly, we’re going to be amazed at how universal the Catholic episcopal outreach is to Catholics on this issue.”
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap, showed just how outspoken some bishops have been in telling the National Catholic Reporter on Sept. 14 that he could not vote for any candidate who was either pro-choice or pro-abortion.
One issue the bishops have spoken out in favor of recently is the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
Both Romney and Obama recently discussed their respective positions on immigration during interviews on Univision, the Spanish-language television network.
Though still politically sensitive, immigration remains on the short list of high-profile issues both parties cannot ignore, said Kevin Appleby, the director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“They have to have a well thought-out position on (immigration). It’s part of the national discussion,” Appleby told OSV.
Many in the electorate feel strongly about immigration, but its priority in the national debate is affected by the economy, which Appleby called the “premier issue” in this election.
Still, immigration will most likely be discussed during the presidential debates.
“It’s an issue that is going to have to be dealt with,” Appleby said. “And if it’s a close election, and every vote counts, you never know how it could play a role there.”
Brian Fraga writes from Texas.