I know it will be hard, but for a moment try to ignore the fact that former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is an African-American. I know that, as we stand in the light of the political sunburst that is President Barack Obama, this will be hard. But try.
Now, think about the issues facing the imploded Republican Party. In the past few elections the GOP has struggled to find a way to please the giant hunk of its ballot-box base that consists of culturally conservative Christians, both Catholic and evangelical. There is no way forward to national victories without those votes.
At the same time, everyone knows that the swing vote that matters the most in American politics is centrist Roman Catholics, especially in the Midwest and parts of the Northeast. As the omnipresent John Green of the Pew Forum told some Oxford Centre students last summer, there are times when it seems that American politics has boiled down to Catholics in Ohio who go to Mass once a month instead of once a week. Remember that complex grid of Catholic voters? Click here for a crash course.
Which brings us to the local coverage of Steele's election as -- all together now -- the first African-American chair of the Republican Party. I was stunned, when I read through the Baltimore Sun coverage, that the emphasis was totally on his race. Social issues are included, of course, but here is how that is covered, linked to discussions of whether Steele is too "moderate" for please the GOP right:
Steele was a co-founder of the Republican Leadership Council, a group headed by former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Even though he opposes abortion, and quit the group last spring, Steele was attacked by social conservatives for his association with Whitman, a prominent supporter of abortion rights.
Now, I am sure that, when push comes to shove, Steele will be viewed by the press exactly as he is portrayed here -- a solid anti-abortion conservative. There is some chance, after all, that Steele may actually hold rather strong views on right-to-life issues -- the while spectrum of them -- due to his religious background.
Oh, and what might that be? His website notes:
Born in 1958 at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County, Maryland, Steele was raised in Washington, DC. He spent three years as a seminarian in the Order of St. Augustine in preparation for the priesthood, but, ultimately, chose a career in law instead. He earned his law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1991.
The fact that Steele is a former seminarian is quite well known here in Maryland, where two statewide campaigns have filled out most of the corners of his biography. While race is crucial, right now, editors at the Sun also have to know that, in the current political climate, crossover Catholic voters are of equal or even greater importance to the GOP leadership. Skipping that part of Steele's history leaves a giant gap.
Of course, race is the lede in the New York Times, as it should be in the current news climate. But where is his standing as a Catholic, a former seminarian? (cue: crickets chirping on a still night)
It's a big ditto over at the Los Angeles Times, where once again we read:
(Steele) had been criticized during his bid for the chairmanship as too moderate, with some raising questions about his ties to a Republican group that backed candidates who supported abortion rights. Steele ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006 as a staunch opponent of abortion.
I am not, let me stress, saying that the racial issue is not important. I am saying that it is very, very strange -- when everyone knows the importance of centrist Catholics in American politics -- to offer no information on the religious element in the story of the new leader of the Republican Party.