The men and women working for the Obama White House are not stupid people. In fact, the billion-dollar Obama political machine is perhaps the most impressive such operation in American political history. Why then, I’ve heard many people asking, would this Administration choose to go to “war”—to use the word of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius —with the Catholic Church, in an election year no less? Why, furthermore, has the Administration’s response to Catholic objections to its new contraception rules ranged from the obtuse to the insulting?
Ducking reporters’ questions on the subject, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney read from a prepared statement with all the sincerity of a North Korean news anchor before refusing to answer questions about the penalties Catholic institutions will face when they refuse to supply free contraceptives to employees. And the Administration trotted out talking points on the White House blog that are blatantly mendacious even by the standards of today’s politics.
People of faith, and even fair-minded secular opinion-makers, have seen through the pretense that this front in the White House’s war is really about contraception. Indeed, one of the positive outcomes of this controversy has been the unity it has produced, not just within the Catholic Church but also among believers who do not share the Church’s beliefs on contraception—or just about anything else. The liberal columnist Sean Michael Winters issued an interesting proposal for our cardinals to engage in civil disobedience. Prominent Protestant and Jewish leaders have also objected to the Administration’s power grab, and the nation’s Orthodox bishops voted unanimously to “join their voices with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops” in “adamantly protest[ing]” the Administration’s new rules.
It is impossible to see this battle as anything other than an attempt to undermine the independence of religious institutions. The Administration has consistently fought to narrow and weaken the First Amendment’s protection of religion. Last year the Administration’s lawyers pursued a line of reasoning before the Supreme Court that would have given the government de facto veto power over who churches chose as educators and ministers, a line of argument that seemed to leave the justices universally dumbfounded. Even the liberal Elena Kagan declared the Administration’s reasoning “amazing.”
Perhaps the most chilling line in Jay Carney’s Brezhnev-esque press briefing was: “This approach does not signal any change—at all—in the Administration’s approach to conscience protections.”
In other words, this is what they were planning all along.
When at Notre Dame the President pledged support for conscience protections, he was apparently only talking about protecting the consciences of those who agree with him. Those who took the President’s word at face value now find themselves sounding a bit like a discarded mistress: “But… but… he said that he loved me… he promised that he’d leave his wife…”
It must now be clear to all of us: the President has been in bed with the abortion lobby for so long, he has eyes for no other lady. Sorry, Notre Dame. This is a man, remember, who as a state senator voted to protect infanticide rather than risk even a peripheral threat to “the full range of reproductive services.” When he speaks of the right to abortion as sacred, President Obama really means it.
(I would also note here, lest one of our long time readers reminds me, that I spoke up on these pages in defense of those Democrats who supported the President’s health care bill. Since I don’t want to revisit that issue, I will simply admit now that I was mistaken to do so.)
None of this, however, answers the question of why the Administration made the decision that it did. Why attack the Catholic Church in such a blatant and obvious way? It is not as if the Church has kept her teaching on the sanctity of human life a secret. Just days before the HHS rules were announced, the Pope himself spoke out against legal threats to religious liberty in the United States. Even if the President is sincerely troubled at the prospect of a world in which somebody somewhere is not buying contraception, how could he not be equally troubled at the prospect of the inevitable and costly legal fight that will follow this decision and the even deeper and more painful cultural and political divisions that will come with it? If he really cared about providing the needy with health care, why begin a campaign a likely outcome of which is hundreds of charitable employers dropping coverage for their employees—or simply shutting down?
In order to answer this question, I think there are both short-term and long-term calculations. It’s important to remember who is included in President Obama’s political base. Radical secularists and those who believe the world would be better without the Catholic Church—or any church—are an important part of the Obama coalition. Not the only part, of course, but the President needs the excitement, energy, and money of those on the secular left. People who are opposed to whatever the Pope says even before he’s said it are going to be fired up at the vision of their champion standing up to those mean old celibate men in miters. And in the coming election—which promises to be very negative—rallying the base is probably a safer strategy than building bridges.
There is an even more fundamental long-term calculation in play however, and it’s this: religious people are not good for the Democratic Party. We can debate the reasons why, of course, whether it had to be this way or not; we can lament the cruel ironies of history that have so polarized our politics; but at the end of the day a bare political calculation remains: the most religious voters tend to break for the Republicans by between 60-40 and 70-30, while those who never attend church or synagogue or mosque go for the Democrats by equally overwhelming margins. The more agnostics or lukewarm Christians there are out there, the more likely it is that Democrats will win elections. Weakening Catholic institutions, making them less religious, breaking their ties to Catholic practice and doctrine, is in the political best interests of the President’s party; it is just a matter of how the numbers break. If all the Catholic pews in this country were to empty tomorrow, the President’s re-election would be a landslide.
The President sincerely believes in boldly remaking this country. In order, however, to ensure that his social agenda endures even after his personal charisma and massive political war chest have become a memory, he needs to ensure that those institutions which offer a viable alternative are figuratively—and I guess in this case, literally—neutered.
Those sympathetic to the President’s agenda—and on many issues I find myself in complete agreement with him—should be advised that rights, once taken away, are rarely given back. Some day the issues will change, but once the Church has lost her independence, the right to govern her own internal affairs, she will be nothing more than a branch of the State social services, a Department of Religious Affairs.
Fortunately, this battle is anything but over, and the impressive Catholic and ecumenical unity we have seen so far is evidence, I think, of the working of grace even in grim circumstances. Even those who do not share our faith realize that something is fundamentally wrong with a social order in which Planned Parenthood exercises a greater influence over Catholic health care plans than does the Pope.
Perhaps we will go back to arguing over contraception once this battle is finished. Perhaps this will be a moment of healing for our Church, so long and so painfully divided. But for now at least we agree on this: we will give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but he has no right to demand our consciences.