Last Sunday, the Catholic Church declared war on President Obama. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida quickly took up the cause, signaling the outlines of a serious religious rumble to come in 2012.
The president should be ready for the fight, knowing that on this one he is right.
At Sunday Mass, Catholic parishioners across the country were read letters denouncing the Obama administration’s recent decision to require religiously affiliated hospitals, colleges, and charities to offer health insurance coverage to employees for contraception and the “morning-after pill.’’ On Monday, Rubio, a Republican star who is often mentioned as a VP candidate, introduced a bill that would override the Obama policy by allowing religious institutions that morally oppose contraception to refuse to cover it.
But not all employees of Catholic institutions are Catholics. Why should their employers impose their religious beliefs on them and deny coverage for birth control and other medical care? As long as those Catholic institutions are getting taxpayer money, they should follow secular rules. That’s the Obama administration’s argument, and it makes sense.
But if truth is a casualty of war, reason is an even more specific casualty of culture war. Obama can’t let the other side frame the argument, which it is already doing in typically ferocious fashion.
I happened to be attending Mass on Long Island, N.Y., when the priest took to the pulpit to read from an address Pope Benedict XVI gave last month to US bishops, in which the pope decried “radical secularism.’’ Benedict did not specifically mention Obama’s name, but the priest informed parishioners the pope was referring to the president. He also said Obama’s policy represented “totalitarianism’’ and an attack on religious freedom and the Catholic Church. The priest went on to quote from a recent opinion piece written by Bishop David A. Zubik of Philadelphia, who argued that the Obama administration “has just told the Catholics of the United States, ‘to hell with you!’ ’’
Now the bishops are basically saying to hell with Obama, and the GOP is seizing the opportunity to join forces with a constituency that can play an important role in presidential politics. Recent history shows that when the Catholic Church goes after Catholic politicians, it can be a real problem for them.
In 2004, many bishops made an issue out of John Kerry’s abortion rights support by threatening to deny communion to the Catholic Democratic presidential nominee. On election day, George W. Bush, a Republican who opposed abortion rights, won the Catholic vote. Kerry was unprepared for the attacks and remained silent about his faith, a stance he now regrets. In a speech he gave at Pepperdine University in 2006, he said, “Despite this New Englander’s past reticence of talking publicly about my faith, I learned that if I didn’t fill in the picture myself, others would draw the caricature for me.’’
After Obama picked Joe Biden, a Catholic, as his running mate in 2008, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized Biden for pro-abortion comments. But their targeting of Biden was not enough to derail the Democratic ticket. Obama ultimately won the Catholic vote over John McCain by a 54 to 45 percent margin, in large measure because voters were more focused on the country’s post-Labor Day economic meltdown. Recent polls, however, show Obama’s support from Catholics is slipping. If the issue of health insurance coverage for contraception becomes a major rallying cry, it could evolve into a real problem for Obama. Republican Mitt Romney, the front-runner who is now running as an anti-abortion candidate after previously expressing support for Roe v. Wade, is already showing signs of strength with Catholic voters.
On the larger health care reform issue, this president has the moral high ground, if only he would take it. A church that is supposedly dedicated to feeding the hungry and clothing the naked wouldn’t want to leave it to insurance companies and free markets to decide who gets to see a doctor and who gets care - would it?
Obama isn’t trying to regulate religion or undermine Catholicism. He’s telling Catholic leaders they can’t regulate the beliefs of those of other faiths. That’s fitting in a country that treasures religious freedom, but also values separation of church and state.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@_Joan Vennochi.