BUSH AND THE POPE….Josh Marshall comments today about President Bush’s visit to the Vatican and his efforts to enlist their help in getting American bishops to be more aggressive on subjects like gay marriage and abortion:

Presidents regularly meet with Popes. Certainly they talk about matters both political and moral, perhaps even theological. But is it the president’s place to press the pope to sow religious divisions among American Catholics, a majority of whom seem uncomfortable with the efforts of some in the hierarchy to discipline pro-Choice Catholic politicians? And all that aside is it proper for the president to enlist the Vatican as an arm of his political campaign?

Josh makes it sound like this is sort of a one time deal, but it’s worth noting that the Christian Right isn’t the only religious community that Bush and Karl Rove have spent a lot of time courting. Rather, Bush’s entreaty to the Vatican is part of a serious, long term strategy to win Catholic votes away from Democrats. Here are John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in The Right Nation:

Bush has devoted a great deal of energy to trying to broaden the definition of the Religious Right….His main quarry has been Roman Catholics, the biggest single religious group in the country and the most ripe for picking.

Bush easily won the votes of a majority of religiously active Catholics in 2000, the best showing among them by a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. He has made a great show of visiting prominent Catholic institutions like the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The White House has a weekly conference call with an informal group of Catholic advisors, and the Republican National Committee has revived a Catholic task force. Bush tries to include fashionable Catholic phrases, such as “the culture of life,” in his speeches

….Bush’s best chance of winning Pennsylvania and Michigan, which he narrowly lost in 2000, probably lies in seducing blue-collar Catholics.

Needless to say, Bush wasn’t expecting the Catholic John Kerry to be the Democratic nominee, and the fact that he is has thrown a huge monkey wrench into his plans to “seduce” ever more Catholics to his side in 2004. The result has been a methodical and relentless assault on Kerry’s Catholic credentials and a sustained effort to find and publicize Catholic bishops willing to go public with their complaints.

So, “is it proper for the president to enlist the Vatican as an arm of his political campaign”? And was his request just something that popped into Bush’s head during one of his conversations? No and no. But the Catholic vote has been a longtime obsession of the Bush campaign and a Catholic opponent has made them desperate.

Remember this whenever you see a news story about a Catholic bishop speaking out against Kerry or a Republican operative questioning his fitness to receive communion. These aren’t just spontaneous shows of support, they’re part of an ongoing and highly professional media campaign to win votes in swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. And judging by how the press credulously reports this stuff at face value, it’s working.

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