The president alienated Catholic voters when he tried to force religious institutions to cover contraceptives, writes Michael Sean Winters. NOTE: This piece was written before Obama announced on Friday that he will not force religious institutions to pay for birth control.
When President Obama announced two weeks ago that he wouldn’t expand the narrow conscience exemption regarding contraceptives and abortifacients from the new health-care law’s mandates, I knew instantly that this meant I could not vote for him again. I’m not a one-issue voter, but some decisions reveal a great deal about a politician. And this revealed that there was no longer room in the Democratic Party for people like me, who had hoped Obama would make the party more friendly to those of us with religious concerns.
President Obama himself had, during his campaign and in his 2009 address at Notre Dame, said that religiously motivated voters should not be expected to leave our faith at the door when we enter the public square. He spoke for a view of America in which diversity was honored, even for religious institutions that others might find quirky. On several occasions, and in several policy decisions, he commended the work of Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services. He gave my friend, Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, one of the pens with which he signed the Affordable Care Act, recognizing her pivotal role in passing that landmark legislation. The problem with his decision on conscience exemptions is not that the president betrayed me, it is that he betrayed his own vision.
The new Health and Human Services rule requires Catholic hospitals, universities, and social-service providers to pay for insurance coverage of the pills and procedures that the church considers morally objectionable. No exceptions. While many states have required contraceptive coverage, most allowed religious institutions to opt out if the requirements violate their religious beliefs. To be clear, the issue is not contraception. The issue is the conscience rights of religious organizations.
How does this president have such a narrow view? To qualify for the conscience exemption, a religious institution must show it: “(1) Has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a nonprofit organization under section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the Code.” So, essentially, if religion is something you do on, say, Sunday morning, and only with your fellow celebrants, you are exempt from the new mandates.
For Catholics, religion is not something we do only on Sunday and only for ourselves. We do not just hear sermons about helping the poor—we seek to do something to actually help the poor. And, so, we have built a vast network of charities and social-service providers. Oftentimes, those charities were aimed primarily at helping our own, when the church in this country consisted largely of poor immigrants. But, in the 20th century, as Catholics became more affluent, our charities continued to do their work, helping everyone irrespective of their religious affiliation. When a person comes to a Catholic soup kitchen, we ask if they are hungry, we don’t ask if they are Catholic. When a person comes to a Catholic hospital, we ask where it hurts, we don’t ask if they are Catholic.
Catholic colleges and universities, which also would not be covered by the narrow exemption Obama approved, serve a slightly different function within Catholicism. The very idea of a university was developed in the Middle Ages as the Catholic Church recognized it needed institutions dedicated to the intellectual life of faith. For Catholics, faith and reason are not enemies. It was the early 20th-century evangelist Billy Sunday, not Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “If the Word of God says one thing and scholarship says something else, than to hell with scholarship.” The cultivation of universities has been an integral part of Catholic life for centuries. It is integral to our sense of what it means to be a church. In this country, we often built those colleges and universities because Catholics were not welcome at Harvard or Princeton. Now, our schools welcome all comers but they continue to perform a vital function for the life of the church.
Needless to say, many Catholic schools and hospitals and charities predate the development of the tax code with its designation of 501(c)3 status for nonprofits. I don’t care if the IRS considers Notre Dame as a 501(c)3, but I do care that Notre Dame continues to function as a Catholic university.
Part of my anger, then, might be called tribal. Chris Matthews on MSNBC recalled the other night that we Catholics grew up watching A Man for All Seasons, in which Thomas More refuses to violate his conscience and is beheaded for it by Henry VIII. Obama has struck a deep chord in our culture, one he may not have recognized, which is damning in itself. But, the protection of conscience used to be something that liberals cared about also. When did liberals stop reading John Locke?
The hypocrisy of some secular liberals has become insufferable. For years, they have been building up the “wall of separation” between church and state, but here they are now, clamoring over it as fast as they can to tell Catholic institutions what kind of insurance we have to offer. Please.
The night after the decision, I had friends over for dinner and I announced my intention not to vote for President Obama again. My friends asked, almost in unison, “Are you going to vote for the Republicans?” I replied, “I said I have lost my respect for the president. I haven’t lost my mind, nor my moral compass.” President Obama made a bad decision. The Republicans did not, simultaneously, become less hateful toward the rights of undocumented workers, more concerned about income inequality, nor less bellicose in their thoughts about Iran. Most of all, as long as the Republican Party is flirting, and more than flirting, with the profoundly anti-Christian writings of Ayn Rand, Von Mises, and Hayek, they remain my bitter enemy.
No, in November, I will be leaving the presidential column on my ballot blank. I could never vote for the Republicans as they are. But, I also cannot support a president who seems not to grasp the historic vocation of American liberalism and the Democratic Party. In 1946, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his book The Age of Jackson, wrote: “American democracy has come to accept the struggle among competing groups for the control of the state as a positive virtue—indeed, as the only foundation for liberty. The business community has been ordinarily the most powerful of these groups, and liberalism in America has been ordinarily the movement on the part of the other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community.” That is the Democratic Party I care about, one that is dedicated to pursuing the common good, not one that is concerned primarily with lifestyle choices.
President Obama, by punching Catholics, many of whom are swing voters in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, risks that historic vocation of the Democratic Party, and indeed has imperiled the future of the Affordable Care Act, without which we would not be talking about extending preventive services for women to anyone. This is as stupid politically as it is unsound on principle.
While writing this, I received an email from the Center for American Progress that begins, “Dear Michael, It’s a core American value: Every woman deserves access to affordable birth control.” Whatever one thinks about contraception, and most Catholics agree with most Americans that it is a good thing, it is not a “core American value.”
Respect for religious liberty is a core American value. Respect for the diversity of our institutions, religious and secular, is a core American value. By trampling on those values to pursue a policy, no matter how good that policy may be, the president has lost my vote and my respect. I can only vote for a president who grasps first principles and sticks to them. And, I can only respect President Obama again if he recognizes the way this decision violates the promises he made to religiously motivated Democratic Catholics and backs down.