Confrontation At The Altar

Politics And Religion Deliver New Mexico For Bush; Where Was Bill?

Tim McGivern
9 min read
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For Edward Gallegos, ballroom dancing is more than just a hobby, it's a way of life. He spent his professional career in dancehalls, teaching and perfecting the moves that he still breaks out at the Corrales Senior Center on Friday mornings. And to keep the elixir flowing, since he retired in 1994, Gallegos, an 83-year-old widower, has employed himself as a dance host on cruise ships, receiving discounted room, board and gratuity in exchange for palming the backs of well-to-do widows who still enjoy life's finer pleasures.

Understandably, it would take a serious diversion to put this lifestyle on hold, but for the past few months, Mr. Gallegos stayed home and got involved in the presidential election. In fact, when a woman he shares his morning walks with suggested he volunteer for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, Gallegos was eager to help. “I stuffed envelopes and did all kinds of things for him,” he said. “I hoped he would make it. I just thought we needed a change.”

Gallegos said he was raised a devout Catholic, attended Catholic schools and besides attending rallies and campaign meetings this fall, he also attended mass regularly at Convent of the Assumption in Rio Rancho.

In the week leading to Election Day, as Mr. Gallegos passed Father Cecil Kleber at the flagpole on his way to mass, the anticipated pleasantry turned sour when the priest noticed Gallegos' sweater pin that read “Seniors for Kerry and Edwards.”

“He mumbled something about that pin; he mentioned abortion and gay marriage. Then I went in for the mass.”

Politics and religion collided again near the end of the service, when Father Kleber told Gallegos that he could not receive Communion unless he removed his pin. Being a respectful parishioner, Gallegos obliged, placed it in his pocket, and received Communion. He went home and mentioned what happened to a family member and the word spread, all the way to the media. “I have a cousin who can't stand what Father Cecil did,” said Gallegos. “All kinds of my friends and relatives got worked up.”

Mr. Gallegos said he received a letter from the convent director Sister Seraphina Moynier saying she was disappointed in Father Kleber's actions.

“Right after it happened, she said he did a wrong thing and it is terribly bad,” Gallegos recalled, adding that the priest later called him to apologize as well. (The Alibi was not able to reach Father Kleber for comment. A call to Sister Seraphina ended abruptly: “I was not there when he made that statement. Thank you so much for the call,” and she hung up.)

Mr. Gallegos' episode might serve as a microcosm for the tone of this year's presidential election, particularly in the role that religion played in the political wind that carried George W. Bush to victory. That is, without mentioning candidates by name, religious leaders directed the election focus to abortion, stem cells and gay marriage, instead of war, health care, poverty and God's green earth.

With a soaring national debt, 45 million Americans without health insurance and bloodshed continuing in Iraq, such a focus was akin to doing Karl Rove's work for him. Nonetheless, in the end, the work paid off for President Bush.

Don't Vote for the Catholic … If You're Catholic

Earlier this year, once Sen. John Kerry, a Roman Catholic, earned the Democratic presidential nomination, a handful of the nation’s 300 Catholic bishops, with the eyes of the press upon them, threatened to withhold the Eucharist from Kerry and other politicians who supported abortion rights.

On May 5, the bishop of Colorado Springs, Michael J. Sheridan, took the media bus one stop further and warned parishioners that they should not receive Communion if they voted for politicians who support abortion, stem-cell research or same-sex marriage. These issues became a central focus of Bush's platform and were echoed on the cable news talk shows and in the daily papers, in one form or another, for the remainder of the campaign season.

In the end, Bush picked up 3 percent more of the Catholic vote in 2004 than he received in 2000, according to exit polls at Catholics comprise 26 percent (closely balanced between Republicans and Democrats ) of the national electorate, and George W. Bush won the Catholic vote nationwide, 52-47 percent. By comparison, Democrat Al Gore won the majority of Catholic votes by a 1-point margin when running against Bush four years ago.

Reacting to the controversy in Colorado, New Mexico Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan stated that Roman Catholics choosing to receive Communion should base the decision on individual conscience and more than a single issue. “The Church must be careful to keep the reception of Holy Communion separate from politics,” he said.

According to an article appearing on Oct. 31 in the Santa Fe New Mexican entitled “Judgment day: Churches weighing in on Catholic vote,” Sheehan reportedly admonished voters to consider seven principles, “including the life and dignity of the human person, human rights and human responsibilities, a call to family and community, the dignity of work and the rights of workers, the option for the poor, solidarity and care for God's creation.”

Despite the attempts by a few Catholic bishops nationwide to persuade parishioners to oppose Kerry, exit polls conducted for had the Democrat winning 62 percent of the Catholic vote in New Mexico, which comprised 32 percent of the votes cast statewide. A Santa Fe New Mexican poll also showed 62 percent of the state's Catholic voters believed the church “should not deny Communion to Catholic politicians whose views differ from church doctrine.”

While opinions among Catholic priests varied on the church's role in guiding the voting preferences of the faithful, evangelical and Protestant church leaders, if exit polls are a fair indication, placed their congregations' minds firmly in the Bush camp. Take Ohio, for example, a swing state that ultimately led to Kerry's concession speech. According to CNN, 17 percent of Ohio voters identified themselves as “White Conservative Protestant”—these folks voted for Bush by a 91-9 margin. Those identified as “White Evangelical/Born Again” comprised 25 percent of Ohio voters; this group went for Bush 76-24.

In New Mexico, CNN's exit poll yoked evangelical, born again and Protestant in a single category, which comprised 49 percent of state voters. Bush won this category, 67-33.

Interestingly, in CNN's exit poll 23 percent of New Mexico voters named “moral values” as the most important issue of the election. In second, “Iraq” was cited as the most important issue by 20 percent of voters. “Terrorism” was named as the most important election issue by 18 percent, and the “economy/jobs” was a priority for 17 percent.

Folks citing moral values as a priority voted for Bush by an 80-18 margin; those citing Iraq favored Kerry 74-26; folks most concerned about terrorism voted for Bush 78-21, and those naming economy/jobs as a priority voted for Kerry by a 73-24 margin. The choice for New Mexico voters was all a matter of perspective. Amazingly, taxes, education and health care were hardly even mentioned as a top concern. Out of the top three issues, two—moral values and terrorism—strongly benefited Bush in New Mexico.

Ground Game

While some moderate and liberal voters might see this year's election as Inquisition-style politics, where religious leaders scorned individual thought in favor of coercing folks to vote a certain way, the story in New Mexico might come down to a more familiar election term—ground game.

For example, the state Republican Party had workers placing fliers on windshields in church parking lots all over Albuquerque, attacking Kerry on abortion rights, gay marriage (which Kerry actually opposed) and stem cell research.

Former Republican Gov. Dave Cargo calls himself “a good Irish Catholic” who attended various Catholic and evangelical churches across Albuquerque and northern New Mexico during the campaign season. Cargo said Christian morality was a key component of the Republican strategy and inside many churches George W. Bush was getting help from the altar. “They weren't saying vote for this candidate, but they were saying here are what the issues are: war, same-sex marriage and abortion,” said Cargo, adding that 44 years ago, 83 percent of Catholics voted for a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, “because the Catholic church said vote for him from the pulpit. This time it was the opposite message.”

Look to northern New Mexico, Cargo said, and the proof is in Rio Arriba and Mora Counties, where Hispanic Democrats dominate the voter rolls, but where there are also a preponderance of evangelical and Catholic churches.

While Rio Arriba County is 80 percent registered Democrat, the county cast more than 5,000 votes for Bush and just under 10,000 for Kerry.

“It was stunning,” wrote Rio Grande Sun news editor John Foster on an election night blog. “I asked the county clerk why. His answer was simple: religion.”

Foster, whose paper is based in Española, wrote that people attending churches in north-central New Mexico had been hearing a steady flow of politically motivated sermons about stem-cell research, abortion and gay marriage during the month leading up to Election Day.

“Had (Gov. Bill) Richardson spent more than a token amount of time in this area, he could have persuaded voters to look beyond those social issues to the economy, jobs, health care, and other core Democratic items,” wrote Foster. “Instead, voters were left to themselves, and they listened to their religious leaders.”

Cargo and Foster both seemed to agree that religious rhetoric focused more on fear-based morality, than social reality. Or as Cargo put it: “You're never going to see a gay pride parade in Española.”

Foster and Cargo also point the blame at the state's most popular Democrat.

“Richardson’s decision to avoid serious, long-term campaigning for Kerry in northern New Mexico was a colossal blunder,” concluded Foster.

“The Dems got sidetracked on the wrong issues,” said Cargo. “They should have been talking about jobs. Richardson had money coming out of the kazoo, and he blew it.”

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