Suddenly no-drama Obama was neck deep in the kind of religious warfare he vowed to avoid. Many pundits—led by older white Catholic men, such as Joe Scarborough and my friend Chris Matthews and even the fair-minded liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne—declared his decision on contraception as not only morally wrong but a politically disastrous violation of religious freedom. Suddenly the specter of 2004—when the culture-war issue of same-sex marriage gave Ohio and the entire election to George W. Bush—reemerged, and some conservative Catholic Democrats began to panic. Within the administration, almost all the white Catholic men opposed the decision—from Bill Daley to Leon Panetta. But critically, the support for the decision came from women, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and key adviser Valerie Jarrett chief among them. So Obama didn’t ignite just a culture war but a religious and gender war as well. Welcome to the election focused almost entirely on jobs.
But the conflict-driven headlines and predictions of disaster for Obama are, in my view, deeply misleading. Right now, they are driven both by cable news’s love of a good fight and high ratings and by the Republican primary campaign, in which the candidates, especially Newt Gingrich and Santorum, are desperately battling to unify the evangelical base, which is convinced its faith is somehow under attack. In the longer run, however, I suspect this sudden confluence of kerfuffles will be seen as one of the last gasps of the culture war, not its reignition. That’s especially possible since Obama’s swift walk-back last Friday, when he proposed an utterly sensible compromise, which exempts both churches and other religious institutions that cater to the general public from directly covering or paying for birth control, shifting the coverage requirement to insurance companies. So Catholic organizations will be able to stay out of the contraception question entirely, while contraception for all women will be kept free of charge. Instead of being lose-lose for the president, it became win-win. Most Catholics will be fine with this compromise, as are the Catholic Health Association and Planned Parenthood. But the bishops? They’ve gone out on a very long limb. This could be the moment when the culture-war tide finally turns and the social wedge issues long deployed so effectively by the Republican right begin to come back and bite them.
The more Machiavellian observer might even suspect this is actually an improved bait and switch by Obama to more firmly identify the religious right with opposition to contraception, its weakest issue by far, and to shore up support among independent women and his more liberal base. I’ve found by observing this president closely for years that what often seem like short-term tactical blunders turn out in the long run to be strategically shrewd. And if this was a trap, the religious right walked right into it.
Take a look at the polling. Ask Americans if they believe that contraception should be included for free in all health-care plans and you get a 55 percent majority in favor, with 40 percent against. Ask American Catholics, and that majority actually rises above the national average, to 58 percent. A 49 percent plurality of all Americans supported the original Obama rule forcing Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage. And once again, American Catholics actually support that more controversial position by a slightly higher margin than all Americans, with 52 percent backing it. So on religious-freedom grounds, the country is narrowly divided, but with a small majority on Obama’s side.
And on the issue of contraception itself, studies have shown that a staggering 98 percent of Catholic women not only believe in birth control but have used it. How is it possible to describe this issue as a violation of individual conscience, when no one is forced to use contraception against their will, and most Catholics have already consulted their conscience, are fine with the pill, and want it covered? This is not like abortion, a far, far graver issue. Even the church hierarchy—in a famous commission set up by Pope John XXIII to study birth control—voted to allow oral contraception under some circumstances, only to be controversially vetoed by Pope Paul VI in 1968. And the truth is, there is no real debate among most actual living, breathing American Catholics on the issue, who tend to be more liberal than most Americans. They long ago dismissed the Vatican’s position on this. And after the sex-abuse scandal, they are even less likely to take the bishops’ moral authority on sexual matters seriously."