Liberals Enabled Bishops in Contraception Battle

President Barack Obama’s accommodation on the birth control coverage requirement was not legally or politically required. But by reacting to Democratic pundits’ amplification of the complaints of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other conservative Catholics, Obama’s actions may have the effect of strengthening the hand of Democrats who insist that the party needs to be more religious. 

Some observers, like Amanda Marcotte at Slate, have argued that Obama’s action weakened the GOP’s hand by showing they were actually less interested in religious freedom than in being anti-contraception zealots. Inevitably, though, the developing inside-the-beltway non-wisdom is that Obama demonstrated, once again, that he is insensitive to religion and is clueless about handling issues involving the intersection of faith and politics. (For examples, see these pieces in The Hill and Politico.)

While Marcotte is right that the whole episode exposed the Republicans’ dark-ages zealotry, the Democratic pundits and strategists who since John Kerry’s loss in 2004 have been pressing the party to be more “friendly” to religion are declaring victory—and castigating Obama for not heeding their calls to begin with.

But Obama wasn’t being hostile or insensitive to religion. The rule as the Obama administration announced it on January 20 was constitutionally sound. Not only was it legally supportable, it was politically supported by a majority of Americans. Nonetheless, the objectors to the contraception coverage requirement claimed that even though it exempted houses of worship, the regulation should also exempt religious institutions whose hierarchies believe contraception is a sin.

Friday’s accommodation, in theory, doesn’t seem to impede womens’ access to contraceptive coverage, and if so may be harmless in practice. The politics of how it played out, though, have caused Obama’s Democratic critics to argue that they need to play a more prominent role in the party. (Meanwhile, not satisfied with the accommodation, just a day after, the bishops began changing the scope of and rationale for their objection.)

Religious institutions already comply with very similar laws to the announced January 20 rule in 28 states. Catholic Charities challenged substantially similar laws to the new federal regulation in two states, California and New York, and the highest courts in both states held that there was no violation of the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. That’s because the law doesn’t “substantially burden” anyone’s religious practice and is one of general applicability that was not targeted at infringing a particular religious practice. 

To permit religious beliefs to “excuse compliance with otherwise valid laws regulating matters the state is free to regulate,” would, the California Supreme Court wrote in its 2004 decision, quoting from a U.S. Supreme Court case, “‘make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.’”

Neither Obama nor his surrogates ever publicly defended his administration’s rule on these grounds. And because the ensuing media firestorm over the rule was not just driven by the usual conservative suspects, but by a handful of Democratic and liberal pundits, it took on a different hue. What made it a man-bites-dog story, and subject to the more scintillating horserace coverage the media adores, was that “even progressive Catholics” like E.J. Dionne and Michael Sean Winters were up in arms about it.

Burns Strider, the political strategist who, as an aide to Nancy Pelosi launched the House Faith Working Group and later advised Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, complained to Politico, “There could have been a more inclusive conversation that included more members of the faith community” over the contraception coverage. He warned, “Electorally speaking, you can’t deny that we’re a nation of faith. In the public sphere, you ignore that at your own peril.” Another, anonymous strategist said, “They [the White House] don’t seem to have their finger on the pulse of the modern religious, Democratic-leaning voters, which is problematic.”

I would love to see the polling data which shows “modern religious Democratic-leaning voters” who planned to abandon Obama over this, like Winters pledged he would, or even opposed to the Obama policy. Where’s the evidence? It may be that Strider and his allies are grasping at straws; after all, two years ago they were miffed that the party didn’t contract with them to advise on congressional races. Later, Strider’s business partner, Eric Sapp, baselessly argued that it was the lack of religious outreach that caused the party’s losses in the 2010 midterms.

Nonetheless, the Young Democrats of America are relying on Sapp and Strider, along with the anti-choice, anti-gay marriage DNC faith outreach director the Rev. Derrick Harkins, to serve as “leading experts in Democratic religious outreach” for its 2012 Leadership Summit in March.

Time contributing editor Amy Sullivan has been critical of Obama for being “tone deaf” on the contraception issue and castigated liberals for their lack of “gratitude” for the Catholic Health Association’s role in passing health care reform. The CHA’s supposed heroism in the legislative battle would not have been necessary, however, had Democrats like Bart Stupak not insisted on holding up the legislation at the behest of the Bishops in the first place, based on false claims that it required taxpayer funding of abortion coverage. In the wake of this week’s events, though, former Congressman Stupak also complained to Politico, “Why do they [the Obama administration] keep stepping on these land mines? Talk to us—that’s all we’re asking.”

After Obama announced the accommodation Friday, Sullivan tweeted that her book, The Party Faithful, would be helpful for “political institutions in recent firestorms.” In her book, Sullivan argued that Democrats needed to pay more attention to religious and anti-choice voters to win elections, charging that Democratic elites ignored this advice at their peril. One supposedly cautionary tale she related was how damaging it was that then-Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe didn’t recognize megachurch pastor Rick Warren when introduced to him at a social gathering.

After Obama won the election, though, he asked Warren to deliver the invocation at his inaugural, a gesture that somehow has eluded his critics who claim he is waging a “war on religion.” This week, at the height of the frenzy over the contraception rule, Warren demonstrated his “gratitude” to Obama when he tweeted, “I’d go to jail rather than cave in to a govement [sic] mandate that violates what God commands us to do.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email