I’m not Roman Catholic. I don’t have a moral or religious problem with contraception (although I do believe abortion is a moral evil–however you want to hash that out, legally speaking). But I am concerned with freedom of religion in the United States, and I believe the Department of Health and Human Services‘ rule forcing religious institutions to provide comprehensive contraception and abortion coverage as part of its employer-based health insurance crosses the line. Whether you are Catholic, a religious person of any stripe, or simply an American concerned about the erosion of liberty at the expense of government intrusion, you should be concerned, too. How does that old statement go? First they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out…
Politically speaking, I believe the Obama administration and the HHS have committed an unforced error in this re-election year. They have forgotten a cardinal rule of life: Never kick a sleeping dog. (And by the way, if you want to know the force of this axiom, just look at Imperial Japan four years after they attacked Pearl Harbor!) In this case, the HHS regulation has kicked a big, sleeping dog that is–or rather, used to be–a part of the Democratic base: the Catholic Church.
The HHS decision, naturally, infuriated church leaders who might be labeled by the media as “traditionalist,” but who simply take seriously the faith handed down to them. David Zubik, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said it all pretty bluntly: he believes the administration has told Catholics to go to hell. I wonder how much the Catholic bishops will be willing to work with the president in the future?
But the HHS decision has also alienated (unnecessarily so) progressive Catholics who would otherwise support the president, but who have been surprised by the administration’s provocative stance toward religious groups. (And this, by the way, is exactly the kind of voter that Obama needs to keep in his fold in order to win this fall.) In some ways, HHS has forced cafeteria Catholics who are Democrats to consider something they wouldn’t have otherwise considered. And the president shouldn’t assume that their allegiance to the Democratic party will win out! Just listen to Michael Sean Winters of the progressive National Catholic Reporter who said as much! Even E.J. Dionne, a reliable acolyte for President Obama, has called into question the wisdom of the HHS decision. So much for putting to bed the meme that Obama has declared war on the church!
Of course, there may be an army of talking heads trying to justify the administration’s error (e.g., Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA), but it won’t change the reality: the damage is done; the dog is awake.
UPDATE: Oooh, this isn’t going away any time soon…
MORE UPDATES: Here is Ross Douthat’s analysis of the situation, in a larger framework.
What will happen if the backlash takes hold in Hispanic communities? Ask Marco Rubio.
Of course, if the Supreme Court strikes down the regulation as unconstitutional, the political damage could all be for nothing (except for maybe firing up the most extreme feminist and secular pockets of the Democratic base).
ANOTHER UPDATE: Even the folks at America magazine–who are far from being fundamentalists–are bristling at the coercion of the state.
JUST ONE MORE…: It looks like RNS and HuffPo are finally coming around to my analysis. This one is definitely not going away soon. (One comment about this RNS article: The Obama administration may figure they will win over women voters with its HHS mandate, but the opposition framing the problem as religious freedom will resonate with many Americans–who tend to still be very religious and independent.)