Obama’s Wrong Answer on Leno

RD’s Sarah Posner discussed the following post and topic in general on Pacifica’s Uprising Radio (find them on Facebook here). That segment begins at approximately the 2-minute mark. – eds

President Obama was on Jay Leno’s show last night, and the late-night host asked him about Richard Mourdock’s statement about pregnancy caused by rape as a “gift from God” and something “God intended.”

Obama responded, “I don’t know how these guys come up with these ideas. Let me make a simple proposition. Rape is rape. Rape is a crime.”

He doesn’t know where these guys come up with these ideas? I know he was trying to demonstrate the outrageousness of Mourdock’s views, but we all know where they come up with these ideas: fundamentalist Christianity.

Obama went on, “The second thing this underscores, though,” (and here is where I’m hoping he’d say, “this is exactly why we don’t want to mix religion and politics.”) But no, Obama said, “is this is exactly why you don’t want a bunch of politicians, mostly male, making decisions about women’s health care decisions. Women are capable of making these decisions… for politicians to want to intrude on this stuff is a huge problem.”

Of course that’s a huge problem, but isn’t there another huge problem: that Mourdock thinks that because he believes he knows what divine intentions are, that his religious views get to dictate policy? Wouldn’t it be just as problematic if Mourdock were a female candidate?

Mitt Romney is refusing to distance himself from Mourdock, because he knows his base isn’t so bothered by Mourdock’s view; in fact, some of them seem to like it very much. (Romney surrogate John McCain, though, has withdrawn his endorsement.) Mourdock’s opposition to rape exceptions from abortion bans is commonplace among hardcore abortion opponents; their intensity and support matters to Romney. White evangelicals are the most likely of all religious demographics to oppose rape exceptions, and they comprise 37% of Romney’s support, according to the 2012 American Values Survey by Public Religion Research Institute. (Overall, 79% of Americans are in favor of rape exceptions.) Conservative Catholics and mainline Protestants together make up another 38% of Romney’s support. Not all of them oppose rape exceptions; an August 2012 CNN poll found that overall, only 22% of Republicans still think abortion should be illegal even if the pregnancy was caused by rape.

Still, though, based on having interviewed many Republican, anti-abortion, and religious right activists, I think there is a significant portion of them who would be sympathetic to Mourdock’s “gift from God” viewpoint. And there’s probably a disconnect between political maneuvering and their personal views: They may want their own sisters or daughters or wives to be able to get an abortion if they got pregnant as the result of rape, but they still would want to see politicians articulating the “gift from God” line. Their religious leaders probably want that even more.

This is not an excuse for Romney by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it’s an explanation for what I wrote about the other day: this is why the culture wars aren’t over, even as the views of religious conservatives are increasingly less popular. Religious conservatives control the Republican Party, both at the grasstops and the grassroots. That’s why Romney thinks he can’t cross them, even if sticking with them puts him at odds with American popular opinion. (Romney might be an extreme case of this, owing to his extreme flip-floppedy-ness, but this is a broader Republican problem, quite obviously.)

Obama quite clearly sees the urgency of this; as he pointed out on Leno, Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance. His campaign ads have been hitting Romney for his coziness his fellow Republicans. Obama’s trying to win a tight election. Polling shows an enormous gender gap; that’s why he’s highlighting this as a women’s issue as opposed to a religion issue. It’s too late in the campaign to dive into waters that Obama’s advisors I’m sure consider too fraught. But maybe someday politicians will have an honest discussion with the public about what’s at stake when we mix religion and electoral politics.

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