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Catholic Identity Politics

Delegates don’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s statements about AIDS as a US government conspiracy to kill blacks, and about American perfidy at home and abroad, may have doomed Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy for president—because millions of traditional Democratic voters don’t want to be blamed for old wrongs.

That seems to be the consensus among the dozens of columnists, bloggers and media creatures who have weighed in on Obama’s March 18 speech.

“Transcendant” was the appropriate word for Obama’s candidacy until the Wright videos showed up on YouTube, and thereafter on the TV news.

The candidate addressed the substance, and the manner as well, of Wright’s rhetoric of victimization, blame and anguish. But for those who came to consciousness before 2000—in other words, for anyone old enough to remember Ronald Reagan or Vietnam, or to have known an urban childhood and a suburban adolescence—the candidate’s efforts may have been beside the point.

Barack Obama and Pastor Jeremiah Wright

The 2008 campaign was always going to face the ultimate challenge of what the late UN Secretary-General Gunnar Myrdal called the unresolved “American dilemma,” and what we all experience as the American racial divide.

In part, it’s a geographic divide. Census data confirm that residential segregation is the norm, especially in the northern states. In the Buffalo area, for example, there are approximately 140,000 African Americans, all but 10,000 of whom live inside the 42 square miles of the municipal boundaries of the City of Buffalo. That means that for the remaining 800,000 residents of Erie County, most of whom are Caucasian, direct experience or proximity with African Americans is limited. Whites and blacks here do not see one another in schools, in the workplace or even in shopping and entertainment venues—and the fractured, localized structure of government here, which incentivized sprawl and retail development away from downtown, has spent 60 years amplifying that isolation.

Geography is racial. The pattern in Buffalo is the same in every city in the Great Lakes, at least on this side of the US-Canada border.

The divide is also cultural—and religious.

White Americans who participate in boisterous, enthusiastic, demonstrative, musical religious services in suburban mega-churches—in other words, Protestants—are participants in a cultural tradition that is very familiar to most African Americans, but that is alien, uncomfortable and more than a little bit threatening to Catholics.

The so-called mainline Protestants—Episcopalians of English heritage, Presbyterians of Scots and Scots-Irish heritage, Lutherans derived from Scandinavia and Germany—are now, strangely, culturally much more similar to northern Catholics than they are to southern Protestants, whether those southerners are black or white. Northern Caucasians go to church services that are relatively sedate. There’s little if any call-and-response with the priest or minister. Tambourines and amplified electric guitars are rare. Preaching does not involve elevation of either decibels or emotion.

But northern Catholics—whether of Northern, Eastern or Southern European ancestry—have maintained the closest physical proximity to large concentrations of African-American populations in Northeastern and Midwestern cities.

It has not been a comfortable proximity. And that discomfort, especially in the bleak years of the 1970s—years of deindustrialization, of desegregation orders and of widespread depopulation—were the formative years of the Republican ascendancy.

Catholics had been departing cities at least since the great northern migration of black Protestants occurred during and after World War II, but left most radically during the heat of the school-desegregation cases of the 1970s.

The American contribution to the 1,000-year-old cultural tradition of Catholic church art and architecture, funded by the sweat and the pennies of immigrant laborers between about 1830 and 1970, is today moldering, crumbling or burning in every Great Lakes city. The bishop may still live downtown; the Jesuit, Franciscan, Vincentian and other orders still maintain their high schools, colleges and hospitals inside the old city limits, but the parishes—to the extent that they still exist—are suburban.

Every politician was in on it. Suburbanization occurred most rapidly in the era when white Catholics were commanded to educate their kids with the kids of black Protestants—which was precisely when white Catholic politicians, and black Protestant politicians, decided to keep city and suburban boundaries rigid. The end of the era of advocacy for metropolitan or regional governments came precisely when the school-desegregation orders began.

This history is all very recent and still very painful.

So when Reverend Wright expressed his anger at American slavery—a policy over which American Catholics had but little influence, one way or the other, as there were few Catholics in this country before 1863—it was a reprise of rhetoric that Catholics found unfair and unfounded 30 years ago.

Vast areas of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and other cities are home to the empty hulks of former Catholic churches, parish halls and parochial schools where pigeons crap and rain falls on murals, statues, mosaics and sacristies. These cities used to be centers of Catholic immigrant culture—stores, saloons, clubs, cultural societies, bowling leagues. Neighborhoods.

The enemy that destroyed those homes? Trade policies that rewarded outsourcing; tax policy that rewarded capital flight; land-use policy that rewarded sprawl; transportation policy that undermined streetcars and subsidized highways; politics that rewarded polarization and undermined coalition; a religious hierarchy that never challenged the spatial segregation of Catholics from Protestants, and in failing to challenge it, blessed it.

But what white working-class Catholics were told, in the 1970s, was that government was the problem—and that taxes were the culprit in economic decline. Republican campaign strategists made the terms “government,” “taxes” and “city” equivalent with the most enduring construct in American political life: the caricature of the loud, threatening African American who owned the old neighborhood, who had elites in pulpits and courtrooms and universities agreeing that he’d been wronged by everyone, and to whom everyone owed endless apology and favor.

Catholics don’t feel sympathy when Reverend Wright complains of American sins. Catholics are instead reminded of their losses, and of their own resentments.

One awaits in vain for a robust messaging that will emerge from this campaign—a new attempt to transcend the racial divide by asserting a new national commitment to reclaiming cities because our industrial future, our energy future and our intellectual and spiritual opportunities will be developed in cities better than anywhere else.

But Republicans know what works for those who remember Reagan, desegregation, Vietnam and the old neighborhood. They will play the Reverend Wright videos again and again, to remind Catholics of their losses.

And meanwhile, faint-hearted Democrats who still refuse to embrace city-suburban integration only amplify, not diminish, the chances that any politician, no matter how gifted, will ever again have of crossing this cultural, religious and racial divide.

At best, perhaps Obama has been our tragic hero, offering hope, doomed, however, to dashing that hope by his intrinsic connection with a history of blame we all want to escape.

America will escape this dilemma. Demography will obviate it: Soon, the African-American discourse of blame, and the Catholic vocabulary of loss, will be overwhelmed by a tougher conversation about Spanish as an American language, as the Hispanic population swells to a size impossible for our current politics to digest. The black-white divide won’t have been healed. And the Catholic-Protestant divide will have morphed into a true cultural divide, with the high wall of language in between.

Bruce Fisher has been a campaign press secretary, a speechwriter and a consultant for Democrats including the late Paul Simon, Joseph Biden, Carol Mosely Braun and Bill Clinton. He left the campaign trail to raise kids in Buffalo and served eight years as deputy county executive for Erie County.

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