At the Vatican, a Democrat Who Gets It

08/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This piece originally appeared on's OnCommonGround forum.

In early seventies, the Democratic Party made a fateful decision to begin building a new coalition, as one commentator put it, of "young people, college-educated suburbanites, and feminists." This might not have been a bad idea had the party not deliberately stopped reaching out to many people of faith -- Catholics in particular -- in the process.

The historical context of this decision isn't insignificant. The party's support for the Civil Rights Movement had cost it the support of many white Southern Democrats, and mounting backlash against perceived cultural excesses of the 1960s exposed a deepening cultural divide -- a divide deepened further by showdowns over in vitro fertilization, The Pill, and, of course, abortion rights. Democratic strategists presumably believed that a smaller but more ideologically homogeneous tent was the real ticket to success, and that socially moderate Americans (formerly core partners in the New Deal coalition) would be little more than monkey wrenches in the cogs of progress.

By 2004 it was clear just how poorly advised this 30-year-old strategic shift was. It was then that so-called "values voters" helped Republicans run the table, with John Kerry -- the first Catholic presidential nominee since JFK -- losing members of his own church by 5 points. If you want to know why Kerry lost Ohio, look no farther than the state's large percentage of white working-class Catholics, who voted against him by a margin of 55% to 44%.

President Obama owes his victory in part to many factors beyond his control: a tanking economy, an unpopular Republican Party, an opponent's mind-bogglingly disastrous campaign, to name a few. But make no mistake about it -- without Obama's ability to reach across ideological lines and unite disparate groups behind common values, the Republicans would surely have emerged victorious last November.

Proponents of the "small tent" strategy are livid now that the common ground values which put Democrats back in the White House in the first place are playing a vital role in the Obama government. Many feel that those who harbor moral concerns about abortion don't deserve a role in helping to craft social policy. More extreme voices write off the values of large swaths of the American public categorically, calling people of faith backward-thinking, dismissing even moderate pro-lifers as woman-haters or terrorists.

That these moderate voters also disdain the divisive tactics of the religious right and are swayable on health care and clean energy is, to the small-tenters, irrelevant. Because they don't subscribe to the far left's "do what feels right" dogma, many average Americans aren't even allowed in the campground.

President Obama is now in Rome for an historic meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, with whom he admittedly disagrees on some fundamental moral concerns. Had their disagreements precluded such a encounter, the fertile common ground that the pope and the president share on progressive values like economic justice, concern for the earth, health care for all, and workers' rights would lie fallow. The pope's sweeping indictment of unregulated free market capitalism and support for a new economic world order -- issued earlier this week in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate -- would have little relevance to U.S. public policy.

If the subject of abortion is broached at the meeting at all, it will almost certainly not arise in the context of abortion rights restrictions or public support for contraception. On these issues, both men recognize the convictions of the other, and realize the overriding importance of more positive productive conversation. Speaking with religion reporters last week, the president pointed to several possible ways to break the stalemate and find common ground on abortion:

On the idea of helping young people make smart choices so that they are not engaging in casual sexual activity that can lead to unwanted pregnancies, on the importance of adoption as a option, an alternative to abortion, on caring for pregnant women so that it is easier for them to support children, those are immediately three areas where I would be surprised if we don't have some pretty significant areas of agreement.

Cynics on both extremes will see the president's persistent support for common ground as a political ploy intended to maintain popularity among moderate voters. They'll view today's meeting at the Vatican as little more than a photo op. But there's another interpretation they should pause to consider: that change doesn't happen without the support of the people, and the people won't support change if it comes packaged with hostility towards their beliefs. Mr. Obama made an election night promise to be the president of all Americans. His sincere and consistent efforts to speak -- as well as to listen -- to the concerns of those who disagree is evidence that he is making good on this promise.