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Minority Catholics Help Obama's Approval Ratings

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Both Mr. and Mrs. Obama will be delivering commencement addresses this weekend. The president is at Notre Dame on Sunday for what turned out to be a controversial invitation. The school is Catholic and he supports a woman's right to have an abortion. Grier Hannon of Mishawaka, Indiana is majoring in theology and philosophy. She is going to the graduation ceremony, though not with any great enthusiasm.

Ms. GRIER HANNON (Student, Notre Dame): I think it's really inappropriate for a Catholic university to be honoring a politician who has used his office and has campaigned to advance abortion rights in this country.

INSKEEP: Still, many Notre Dame students support having a speech by the president, who will also receive an honorary degree. Here is senior class valedictorian Brennan Bollman of St. Joseph, Michigan.

Ms. BRENNAN BOLLMAN (Valedictorian, Notre Dame): I think that as a university our prime goal is to educate minds and to engage all perspectives in doing that. And so this is a place where we should be able to have thoughtful conversation, where we should be able to hear all perspectives.

INSKEEP: So that's the debate at Notre Dame. If you take that conversation nationwide you find that polls show American Catholics are among Mr. Obama's strongest supporters. That's despite their differences on abortion and other issues. NPR's Don Gonyea has this report.

DON GONYEA: Abortion is the primary source of the conflict over the president's appearance at Notre Dame this weekend. And the church's strong opposition to abortion rights plays a prominent role in the weekly sermons and daily discussions that take place in parishes across the country.

Unidentified People: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come…

GONYEA: This is yesterday's 8:00 a.m. mass at Regina Coeli Parish on the north side of Toledo, Ohio. Among the congregants was 77-year-old John Bender, a retired banker and a major Notre Dame sports fan. He is not happy.

Mr. JOHN BENDER: I don't know that I'll go to another Notre Dame football game.

GONYEA: Bender doesn't see how the best-known Catholic university in the land can allow a supporter of abortion to address such an important event as graduation. As for his assessment of how Mr. Obama is doing as president, Bender is unimpressed.

Mr. BENDER: Obama is a great public speaker; that I absolutely give him credit for. But I think the majority of the time he doesn't say anything of consequence.

GONYEA: Then there's Frank Despisito(ph). He was at yesterday's mass as well.

Mr. FRANK DESPISITO: I am very pro-life.

GONYEA: But Despisito is also an example of how unpredictable the Catholic vote can be if you rely on the abortion issue alone.

Mr. DESPISITO: It's not the only issue. It is a big issue, but it's not the only issue.

GONYEA: He says he proudly cast his ballot for Barack Obama, as did 54 percent of American Catholics in the November election, a slightly higher percentage than Mr. Obama won overall. Despisito says he did so because he puts other issues above abortion when he votes for president: the economy, health care, how the U.S. proceeds in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some Catholic supporters of the president also point out that his opposition to the war was in line with the Vatican's view and that the war issue should be weighed alongside the debate over abortion. Surveys do consistently show that voters, both the general public and Catholics, rank abortion well down the list when asked to prioritize their issues.

Recent polls, including one released yesterday by Quinnipiac University, find the president fetching an approval rating among Catholics that is several points higher than he gets with the general public. John Green is with the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Mr. JOHN GREEN (Pew Research Center): One of the reasons that President Obama was able to win the Catholic vote outright and also maintains very high approval ratings is because of minority Catholics - Hispanic Catholics, African-Americans, Asians, and so forth - who very strongly supported the president and still strongly support him.

GONYEA: And Green points out something else, another divide within the church. Call it a difference of intensity. Roughly half of those who identify themselves as Catholics are not regular churchgoers. If you take them out of the equation, the support for the president falls off some. It falls further if you take minority Catholics out of the mix. In fact, just 43 percent of white non-Hispanic Catholics who attend weekly mass say they approve of the job the president is doing. The Quinnipiac poll's Peter Brown says those Catholics are more conservative.

Mr. PETER BROWN (Quinnipiac Poll): The more religious someone is and the more observant they are, the more likely they are to agree with the Roman Catholic Church's teaching. Those who are occasional visitors of church are less likely than someone who goes every week or more than every week.

GONYEA: So President Obama heads to Notre Dame Sunday with some alumni groups and other Catholics visibly unhappy. But that viewpoint is not likely to dominate at the ceremony itself, any more than it dominates among American Catholics, who turn out to be far more diverse and given to dissent than their public image would suggest.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Toledo, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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