Abortion and stem cell research were two central issues on the minds of Catholic voters at a mock debate held last night in the Michigan Union.
During the debate, two members of the Catholic Church stood in as surrogates for Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama in a final push to reach undecided Catholic voters on campus.
Doug Kmiec, the former dean of the Catholic University of America School of Law and a former adviser to Ronald Reagan, spoke on behalf of Obama. David Wilson is the co-chair of Catholics for McCain in Michigan, and represented the Republican nominee.
The “presidential forum” was labeled as a conversation, though it unfolded much like a presidential debate. Both speakers gave opening and closing statements, and addressed prompts regarding a variety of topics including war, abortion, health care and U.S. dependence on oil. Father Tom McClain from St. Mary Student Parish moderated.
The discussion largely circled around the issues in “Faithful Citizenship,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ election-year statement on political responsibility, which is issued as a guide for Catholic voters.
The audience of about 100 included both students and Ann Arbor residents, many of whom said they went to the debate still uncertain about who they would vote for on Tuesday.
The speakers sprinkled disparaging remarks about the opposition into exchanges throughout the debate, with one of the most heated exchanges occurring on the topic of embryonic stem cell research. On Election Day, voters in Michigan will decide on Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that would loosen the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research in the state. Both candidates support the research, a fact that is problematic for many pro-life Catholic voters.
“John McCain does support embryonic stem cell research for existing lines, as I understand his position,” Wilson said. “We as Catholics should have a problem with that.”
Wilson went on to discuss the potential of adult stem cell lines to cure diseases. Kmiec challenged Wilson by asking how he could support McCain while denouncing Obama for his pro-life stance.
“Because there’s no perfect candidate,” Wilson replied.
According to polling data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Catholics make up about 25 percent of the U.S. electorate, making them a key group for both candidates. In their life narratives, Senators Obama and McCain often recount experiences that led them to find their religious identity.
But the topic has not been a central theme in either of the candidate’s stories, which could be one reason polling showed that Senator Obama’s former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton won the Catholic vote by a large majority. In the general election campaign, the Obama campaign has fought hard to earn the votes of those Catholic Clinton voters.
According to Pew data, Obama currently leads McCain in white non-hispanic Catholic registered voters 49 percent to 41 percent.
Kmiec said he received scrutiny from the church after his endorsement of Obama, who is pro-choice. In his closing statement last night, he recounted being refused communion during church services and being verbally scolded by the priest.
“Fight for your faith. Fight for the calling of the human good. Fight for the truth of the human person,” Kmiec said. “Senator Obama will, and that’s why I have given him my vote in clear conscience.”
After about 90 minutes of questions, audience members were asked to discuss their thoughts and concerns with those at their table. Each table had a discussion facilitator who lead the talks.
Engineering senior Joey Peroxky attended the forum after hearing about it at St. Mary’s, where he attends church. He said abortion and health care are the most important issues for him, adding that his table’s discussion helped make a decision of who to vote for.
“There were differing views, but the views people had were well-reasoned and helped a lot with my thinking,” Peroxky said.