Obama, the born-again Catholic

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

Amid polls showing that his efforts to regulate religious institutions have hurt his image among Catholics, President Barack Obama has begun touting his early ties to the church.

“My first job as a community organizer was with Catholic churches who taught me the power of kindness and commitment to others in neighborhoods,” he declared at a Hollywood fundraiser May 23.

“When I was a young community organizer, I was working with Catholic churches and they taught me that no government program can make as much of a difference as kindness and commitment on the part of neighbors and friends,” he said at a Colorado fundraiser earlier that day.

This new emphasis on his ties to the Catholic Church is a change from Obama’s previous speeches and fundraisers, where he did not mention that, early in his career, he was funded and supported by liberal Catholic officials in Chicago.

His Chicago supporters included a radical Catholic priest, Father Michael Pfleger, who has since been admonished by senior church officials for political advocacy.

Obama’s emphasis on his Catholic ties come as polls show a sharp drop in his support among swing-voting Catholics in battleground states after his February imposition of regulations on churches.

An April poll from Pew reported that Obama’s approval among non-Hispanic Catholics dropped from 45 percent in March to 37 percent in April, while support for Romney rose from 51 percent to 57 percent. That shift could swing the decision in critical swing-states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania.

If broadcast on TV, Obama’s new emphasis on his Catholic ties could bolster his weakened standing among many liberal Catholics, especially those who rarely attend church. It could also boost his support among the many Hispanic Catholics in battleground states like Nevada, North Carolina and Florida.

Obama’s February regulations require government officials to decide whether churches’ activities are religious enough to merit exemption from an unwanted federal mandate that clashes with some churches’ core message. The mandate requires religious institutions to provide contraception and some abortion-related insurance services to their employees who work outside in places such as schools, charities and hospitals.

The regulation is strongly opposed by the Catholic Church — which operates many schools, charities and hospitals — but also by Baptist, Evangelical and Jewish religious groups. They fear it could be used by progressives to impose further disabling regulations on religious observance and on churches.

“They tell us if you’re really going be considered a church… you can serve only Catholics and employ only Catholics,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the most senior Church official in the U.S., told “CBS This Morning” May 22. “We’re like, ‘Wait a minute, when did the government get in the business of defining for us the extent of our ministry?’”

Because of Obama’s regulation “you’ve got a dramatic, radical intrusion of a government bureaucracy into the internal life of the [Catholic] Church,” Dolan said April 8 on CBS’ Face the Nation.

The Catholic shift away from Obama may grow following Obama’s May 9 decision to endorse same-sex marriage, a position that is especially unpopular among Hispanic Catholics.

In 2008, for example, Arizona voters endorsed a ballot initiative that defines marriage as a one-man, one-woman institution. An advocacy push by Catholic leaders boosted church-going Catholic voters’ opposition to same-sex marriage from 44 percent to 82 percent, according to Catholic officials in the state. A recent Pew poll, however, found that a narrow majority of Catholics nationwide support same-sex marriage rights, including 57 percent of white Catholics.

Dolan and other Catholic leaders have promised to launch an information campaign on the church-state regulation prior to the November election. In addition, 43 Catholic organizations filed 12 high-profile lawsuits around the country against the regulation on May 20.

Obama’s use of his Catholic ties came April 3 at a lunch of media professionals arranged by the Associated Press.

“Some of you know my first job in Chicago was working with a group of Catholic churches that often did more good for the people in their communities than any government program could,” he said.

He cited those ties on April 10, May 5, April 10 and May 10, when he told donors in Seattle that “as a young man, I worked with a group of Catholic churches who taught me that no poverty program can make as much of a difference as the kindness and commitment of a caring soul.”

However, he has not mentioned his Catholic past in numerous other fundraisers, including several given after his May 9 endorsement of same-sex marriage.

Immediately after his Seattle fundraiser, Obama flew to Hollywood for another fundraiser hosted by a famous actor, George Clooney. He didn’t cite his Catholic ties, but did subtly align himself with a cause still opposed by many Catholics — the redefinition of marriage to include gay and lesbian couples.

“Obviously yesterday we made some news, but — (applause) — but the truth is it was a logical extension of what America is supposed to be… Are we a country that includes everybody and gives everybody a shot and treats everybody fairly, and is that going to make us stronger?“ he said.

In previous speeches, Obama has identified himself with other sub-groups of voters, including Arabs and African-Americans.

In 2008, for example, he declared himself to be an immigrant from from the Indian subcontinent, dubbed a “desi.”

“Not only do I think I’m a desi, but I’m a desi,” he told an audience of Pakistani and Indian donors at a San Francisco event that raised $7.8 million for his 2008 campaign. “I’m a homeboy,” he added, according to an August 2008 article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Obama’s eagerness to accentuate some aspects of his upbringing, however, contains some risks beyond the normal difficulty of balancing incompatible demands from rival blocs of voters.

Most notably, the recent discovery that that his literary agent distributed from 1991 to 2007 a glossy biography describing him as being born in Kenya, has prompted critics — including businessman Donald Trump — to suggest he made fraudulent claims about his birthplace to get places in Columbia University and Harvard law school.

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