Do People Really Think Obama Will Lose on Free Birth Control?

Andrew Sullivan thinks that Obama has set a trap for the religious right over contraception. By rolling out a relatively stringent requirement and then compromising he both builds his own reputation as someone who is willing to compromise and increases the chances that the religious right will overreach and make this about contraception instead of religious liberty. I’m not convinced that Obama did this to intentionally set a trap, but I am increasingly mystified by those who think this will hurt him in the general election.

The USCCB has now staked out it’s new position. If a Catholic owns a sporting goods store they should not be covered by the mandate and should be allowed to over health insurance that does not cover contraception to their employees, regardless of the employee’s religion. As Sullivan writes, “This kind of rhetoric is not about protecting religious freedom. It is about imposing a particular religious doctrine on those who don’t share it as a condition for general employment utterly unrelated to religion at all. And if that is the hill the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical right want to fight and die on, they will lose—and lose badly.”

Greg Sargent has an excellent post about the recent polling that shows that both Catholics and Republicans support the current contraception compromise policy and that independents, moderates, and women overwhelmingly support it. Jonathan Bernstein speculates on why the Republican party is continuing to push back even after seeing the polling. The short answer is that they won despite being ideologues in 2010, but are crediting their sweeping 2010 victory to ideological purity.

Gary Wills has the best breakdown of the religious arguments over birth control that I’ve seen up on the web (definitely worth your time if you’re at all curious of how the Church came to hold its anti birth control position), but I have yet to see anyone really simplify the remaining issue to it’s most basic formula: Should people and institutions be forced to indirectly pay for things they don’t agree with?

History suggests that they should. After all, we pay taxes for all sorts of things we don’t agree with, and that includes the Catholic Church indirectly funding the death penalty, unjust wars, and contraception (before this ruling). Economists might quibble about the difference  between directly paying and indirectly paying (money is fungible) but historically we’ve made a distinction. For the most party people both pay taxes to a government that uses the money in ways they don’t always agree with and give money to companies that use the money in ways they don’t agree with. Certainly the polling suggests that most people do not have a problem with forcing people to pay indirectly for a public good. And the Catholic Church has never had a problem with forcing people to pay taxes for a public good, they just don’t view birth control as a public good. Which brings us back to the question that is a sure loser for the Church; is birth control a public good? As long as the debate was about religious liberty the Church was on solid ground, but if it becomes about birth control, as it already has, then they will lose badly.

There’s one more thing that should be noted here, the cafeteria Catholicism of both Santorum and Gingrich. Both have taken positions opposed to Church teaching on the death penalty, living wage, unions, and wealth redistribution. The Catholic Church is neither Democratic or Republican, but in election after election we hear criticisms of Democratic candidates from conservative Catholics. There is nothing wrong with that, so perhaps the real shame is that we don’t hear more criticism of Republican candidates from liberal Catholics. The Church has a lot of good criticism to offer both parties, and should be involved in the electoral process, not as a partisan institution, but as a religious institution that recognizes that the Gospel reaches into all areas of our lives, the physical and political as well as the spiritual.


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