Faith and Politics Converge at the University of Scranton

By Jackie Bischof
November 3, 2008

To get a good understanding of the diversity of political views shared by residents of Scranton, Pa., there’s no better place to look than the microcosm of the University of Scranton, located in the center of Democratic Party vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden’s hometown.

The university, which was recently named one of the best in the country by The Princeton Review, was also named the most politically apathetic, something the president of student government, Joe Quinn, passionately disputes.

“We talk about the issues, we talk about what’s important to us, and students are getting fired up,” said Quinn. “It’s exciting to be here for this election, and everyone’s talking about Scranton!”

For this Catholic Jesuit university, abortion is one of the biggest issues in the election, particularly since the Bishop of Scranton, Joseph Martino, got involved. Martino recently instructed his priests to read aloud at Masses a letter compelling Catholics to vote for a pro-life candidate.

The letter caused huge controversy among Catholics nationwide, some of whom took offense to Martino’s directive. The reaction illustrated a split in the church, wrote The New York Times, between liberal Catholics who believed the Democratic Party better represented their beliefs overall, and conservative Catholics who considered the presidential candidates’ stance on abortion a deciding factor in the election.

Henry Graebe, president of the College Republicans at the university, agrees that abortion is a central issue for students when deciding their vote.

“I think in a society where the right to life is in question, everything else becomes irrelevant,” said Graebe. “And if people’s right to life is not safe, then taxes, the environment and health care really become arbitrary.”

Catholics are the largest religious group in Pennsylvania, making up 29 percent of the adult population, according to the Pew Research Center. Scranton’s 32.5 percent Catholic population forms a critical voting block for the Republicans and Democrats in this politically contested swing state. Although Obama has recently pulled ahead in Pennsylvania polls, some are wondering the extent to which Martino’s letter will affect the vote of Catholics, not only in Scranton, but state-wide.

For students who have already decided they are pro-choice, other issues such as the environment, health care, the Iraq war and the cost of education are influencing their vote, said Alyssa Katz, president of the College Democrats.

For pro-choice students in this Catholic town, however, the right to choose is an important issue to defend in this election.

“My personal beliefs on what I think I would do should not effect what anyone else should do,’’ said Katz.

Katz believes that Republican nominee Sen. John McCain will repel conservative voters with what she describes as his previous ambiguity on the abortion issue. But Graebe says the Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama is scaring Republican voters with what he says are increasingly left-leaning positions on issues such as taxes for the wealthiest earners.

“I think if he was more moderate, it would surely be a Democratic landslide,” said Graebe.

Despite this, Graebe thinks Obama is likely to win. That won’t stop him from voting for McCain, however. And it hasn’t stopped Theresa Hanntz, president of the pro-life student group Students for Life, from voting for McCain either. She has already submitted her early vote and said that her views on abortion motivated it.

“You can have the best health-care system, the best economic system, the best views on foreign policy, but for [Students for Life] it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a candidate that values the inherent dignity of human life,” Hanntz said.

William Parente, who has taught political science at the university for 38 years, agrees that abortion is a central issue for young Catholic voters.

Parente, a Republican who plans to vote for McCain, recently spoke at a church-sponsored forum on the upcoming presidential elections. The point of his address, he said, was to express his view that Catholics could, “in good conscience, vote for either candidate.” In the audience sat Bishop Martino, who interrupted the forum, according to Parente, to reiterate the views expressed in his letter: that abortion was the key issue in the election.

Parente says that it is difficult to judge how much their Catholic faith will affect students when it comes to casting their vote.

“Different people have different views in their faith on what is the most important issue,’’ he said. “Is fighting poverty in Africa more important than capital gains tax, than stem cell research, than the abortion issue, than gay marriage?”

One thing Parente does know is that more students are participating in this election than previously, and that he is particularly impressed by the organization of students campaigning for Obama. But he’s not counting McCain out, and will be casting his vote for the Republicans on Nov. 4.

“The Obama forces are very confident that they are going to win this election, pending a miracle,” he said. “And we know we ought not to depend on miracles.”

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