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Obama's speech to Notre Dame reveals rift among white, minority Catholics

May 15, 2009 |  7:55 am

University of Notre Dame commencement

The long-awaited, much-debated commencement address by President Obama to the graduating seniors at the University of Notre Dame takes places this weekend.

As our colleague Robin Abcarian pointed out in a previous post, news that Obama was to address the graduating class at the nation's premier Catholic university re-ignited the culture wars over abortion that had quieted during the last election. The Fighting Irish were fighting mad — protests erupted, the university president took a lot of heat, the local bishop announced he would boycott the speech of a president who supports a woman's right to choose abortion.

But now the Quinnipiac Poll has released a new survey of American Catholics, showing that opposition to the appearance splits white religious Catholics from minority and more secular Catholics.

Obama won 54% of Catholic votes in the 2008 presidential campaign, slightly higher than his overall total. His approval rating from Catholics is even higher.

"One of the reasons Obama was able to win the Catholic vote outright — and maintains very high approval ratings — is minority Catholics," said John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. As Green told NPR this morning, Latino Catholics, African American Catholics and Asian Catholics give the president far higher marks than their white counterparts.

Maybe it's their focus on larger issues — like the economy and jobs, a home-grown concern in Indiana. Maybe it's their pride in seeing another minority in the nation's highest office.

Throw in another factor, religious observance, and the divide grows even starker. Half of self-described Catholics do not attend church regularly. Most Catholics, according to the Quinnipiac Poll, think Obama should be allowed to speak. But the highest number who want the invitation rescinded, some 43%, are Catholics who count themselves as regular churchgoers.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo Credit: Notre Dame University