Barack Obama, Notre Dame, and the Casey myth

President Obama is scheduled to speak at Notre Dame's graduation ceremony this weekend, after more than a month of complaints from a small number of anti-abortion rights activists who have received media attention far disproportionate to their numbers.

President Obama is scheduled to speak at Notre Dame's graduation ceremony this weekend, after more than a month of complaints from a small number of anti-abortion rights activists who have received media attention far disproportionate to their numbers.

Since the announcement on March 20 that Obama would speak, The Washington Post alone has addressed the controversy in 11 articles and columns. The New York Times has dealt with it in eight columns and articles. And as for television news segments, there have been too many to count.

Seeing the media behave as though it is completely natural that the anti-abortion rights activists want to exclude Obama from the Notre Dame commencement because of his views on abortion is more than a little bizarre.

Not only because Obama won a majority of votes cast by Americans, Catholics, Indiana residents, and probably Notre Dame students and faculty (Obama won 58 percent of the vote in St. Joseph County, in which Notre Dame is located). And not only because most of the country favors abortion rights* and stem cell research, as do a plurality of Catholics.

But also because of the Bob Casey myth. For nearly 17 years, the media have told us that the Democrats' refusal to allow Casey to speak at their 1992 national convention because of his opposition to abortion was an exclusionary, closed-minded stunt that drove away potential supporters.

Now, before we go any further, it's important to understand that Bob Casey was not denied a speaking role because of his views on abortion. I extensively debunked this myth in a column last year and won't rehash it now. For now, what matters is that the media have long pretended that it happened and lectured Democrats for taking such an intolerant position. It never made any sense -- particularly not when the Republicans have never allowed anyone to devote an entire convention speech to arguing in favor of abortion rights. So the Republicans have not allowed pro-choice speeches (speeches, not speakers) at their conventions, and most Americans are pro-choice ... and yet it is the Democrats who have been portrayed as a small-tent party. Bizarre.

And now we have conservative activists, at the nadir in their movement's history, with the political party to which they hitch their electoral wagon only slightly more popular than swine flu ... pushing people away, sending a signal that you are not welcome among them if you do not share their opposition to abortion rights and stem cell research. And the media, for the most part, treat this as a natural position for them to take. I haven't seen many warnings that their attempt to deny Obama the opportunity to speak at Notre Dame might drive away the majority of Americans -- and Catholics -- who approve of Obama, or who support stem cell research.

I have, however, seen some typically bad reporting about the nexus of religion and politics.

Take, for example, a recent Washington Post item headlined “Catholics Split Over Obama's Notre Dame Appearance.” Sure, that's true -- if by “split,” you mean “more than twice as many people approve as disapprove.” But that's a pretty nonsensical definition of “split.” The article isn't any better than the headline:

A vocal and influential constituency of American Catholics disapproves of the University of Notre Dame's decision to invite President Obama to speak at the Catholic university's commencement and receive an honorary degree in two weeks, but almost twice as many Catholics approve of the invitation, according to a new poll.

Actually, more than twice as many Catholics approve of the invitation, as we'll see shortly. But even the Post's misstatement of the support for the Obama invitation makes clear that the headline is silly.

Back to the Post:

Many people are angry at what they see as one of the nation's most prominent Catholic institutions honoring Obama, who supports abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.

Yeah, if by “many,” you mean “fewer than one in four Catholics.” More from the Post:

But a poll just released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows 50 percent of Catholics saying they approve of the Notre Dame award to Obama, with 22 percent saying they disapprove. Twenty-two percent said they didn't know.

See how the Post got it wrong with its claim in the lead that “almost twice as many Catholics” approve of the decision? Fifty percent is more than twice as much as 22 percent, not nearly twice as much. More from the Post article:

The pollsters note, however, that there is a gap in the Notre Dame controversy between more and less observant Catholics. Among white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend church weekly or more often, approval of the decision plummets to 37 percent. Forty-five percent said the decision was wrong. Among those who attend “less often,” 56 percent support the invitation while 23 percent oppose it.

Wait a second. What about Hispanic and non-white Catholics who attend church weekly? “More observant Catholics” and “white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend church weekly or more often” are simply not synonymous phrases. This is a classic bait-and-switch that is typical of media coverage of religion and politics -- it makes a sweeping statement about the opposition of religious people to progressive politicians and causes, and then supports it with polling data about white religious people. As though the only real religious people are (non-Hispanic!) whites. (Maybe that's because, according to some in the media, people of color aren't "regular people.")

And it shows the hoops reporters jump through to portray opposition to Obama's Notre Dame speech as anything other than a fringe position. Let's see ... we can't say most Americans oppose the invitation ... or most Catholics ... hmmm ... there must be some group that does ... how about white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend church at least once a week, own a dog but not a cat, live in the Deep South, own guns, and own at least two cars? Bingo! But let's just refer to them as “more observant Catholics.”

When reporters -- or pollsters -- have to slice the data that thin, you know they're grasping to justify paying so much attention to this trumped-up “controversy.”

* True, there's a new Gallup poll that says most Americans call themselves “pro-life” for the first time. But that's a pretty loaded label. More important, the Gallup results seem fishy. Gallup says the large swing from a year ago is attributable entirely to a 10-percentage-point increase in Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who call themselves pro-life. But that 10-point increase can only result in the overall swing Gallup claims has occurred if more people are Republican or lean Republican today than a year ago. That's possible, but is inconsistent with other polling that shows fewer Americans than ever consider themselves Republicans. Until Gallup releases the full data, its press release shouldn't be taken particularly seriously.