In the four years since the election of President Barack Obama, the way people access and share political news and opinion has changed radically.
In 2008, Obama harnessed new technology to spread his campaign messages via social media, emails, websites, Youtube and mobile phones. On Election Day, there were roughly 125 million people on Facebook. While almost a million people had Twitter accounts, only 200,000 of them used it weekly. The iPhone had been introduced only a year earlier. Tablets were still a specialty item. Android devices were just being released. Blogs were, with few exceptions, a hobbyist niche.
Today, there are 1 billion Facebook accounts. Twitter passed the 500 million mark in June. The combined installed base for smart phones is more than 1 billion. Bloggers have become the new vox populi, providing not only commentary but a new forum for people to discuss political issues that are vital to Catholics.
This entire online world forms an ecosystem in which people can share posts, messages, images and videos instantly, much of it coming from primary sources and bypassing the news media. The fight for the leadership of America is being played out with speeches and rallies, on television and in articles coast to coast, but the Internet is where the battle never ends, and it’s dividing Catholics just as it’s dividing the rest of the country.
As the election passed into its final stretch, Catholic media, social media and blogs focused on several key issues of unique interest to Catholics.
Budget and mandate
One of the major stories was the selection of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan — a Catholic — as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s running mate. Depending upon which side you read, Ryan was a “joke” chosen to “throw red meat to the extreme right wing of the Republican Party” (according the National Catholic Reporter), or someone who has a “deep appreciation of the Catholic economic principle of subsidiarity” (according to the National Catholic Register).
Whether or not Ryan’s budget harms the poor or simply tries to find more efficient and cost effective ways to help them was a topic discussed throughout the summer. In particular, people argued if Ryan’s admiration for objectivist philosopher and libertarian icon Ayn Rand could be squared with his stated fidelity to Catholic social teaching. Numerous articles analyzed Rand, who preached an anti-religious gospel of radical selfishness, from a Catholic perspective, while Ryan himself stated in the pages of the National Catholic Register that “I reject her philosophy.”
This controversy brought key Catholic principles into mainstream discussion, particularly as people debated the ideas of solidarity and subsidiarity, and if Ryan’s budget reflected those principles.
The dominant election story, however, remained the HHS mandate forcing Catholic employers to pay for contraception, abortifacients and sterilization. Even publications that were sympathetic to President Obama and his health care program declined to defend the mandate.
The role of abortion in the Democratic Party platform and the prominence of pro-abortion speakers at the Democratic National Convention were also the focus of a great deal of coverage from the Catholic press and bloggers.
The Dolan controversies
The traditional left/right political dichotomy is problematic for Catholics, since we don’t readily fit into either camp. In mid-August, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York announced that both Romney and Obama would be invited to the annual Al Smith Dinner. Online, Republican Catholics were outraged, with bloggers and editorial writers accusing the cardinal of dining with the enemy and providing a Catholic photo op for someone who was attacking the Church.
Cardinal Dolan, usually a favorite among conservatives, responded to his critics by pointing out that the dinner is “an occasion of conversation; it is personal, not partisan.” Few were appeased, and called the invite a “scandal.”
Within a week, the cardinal’s office announced that he would be giving the closing invocation at the Republican National Convention. Now it was time for Democratic Catholics to explode, accusing Cardinal Dolan of supporting one political party over another. Outraged liberals said it was a de facto endorsement of Romney by the Church, even though Cardinal Dolan had extended the same offer to pray at the Democratic National Convention and was rebuffed.
Meanwhile, the Republican Catholics who had accused Dolan of causing “scandal” with his Al Smith Dinner invite were now largely cheering his eminence for his RNC appearance.
Cardinal Dolan ended up praying at both conventions, offering pointed comments about care for the poor to Republicans, and even more pointed comments about the sanctity of life and freedom of religion to the Democrats.
In the end, Cardinal Dolan was where he always intended to be: allied not to political parties but to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Since 1976, approximately 4 percent of the “Catholic vote” has proved to be a crucial swing vote in presidential elections. Given the importance of religious freedom in this election, our voices are more important now than they have been in a long time. And, thanks to the reach of new media, those voices are being heard.
Thomas McDonald is the author of the God and the Machine blog. He writes from New Jersey.