A Bitter Pill

Will the administration’s controversial contraception ruling drive Catholics away from President Obama?

Several types of oral contraceptives manufactured by eight Japanese pharmaceutical companies are shown at Oral Contraceptives Information Center in Tokyo, July 2, 2004. Five years ago Japanese women's rights advocates won a major battle to legalize oral contraceptives. Now they are waging an even tougher fight: getting women to use them. ()  
National Journal
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Beth Reinhard
Feb. 9, 2012, 9 a.m.

Joel Hunter was an un­likely ally of Barack Obama’s in the 2008 elec­tion. The Chris­ti­an evan­gel­ic­al, who leads a mega-church in cent­ral Flor­ida, had backed fel­low pas­tor Mike Hucka­bee in the Re­pub­lic­an primary that year. At Obama’s in­aug­ur­a­tion, Hunter found him­self sit­ting next to Muhammad Ali in the 12th row.

Obama’s out­reach to the faith­ful dur­ing the 2008 cam­paign — un­pre­ced­en­ted for a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate — paid off. He did 8 per­cent­age points bet­ter than 2004 nom­in­ee John Kerry had among voters who wor­ship weekly or more, al­though he lost reg­u­lar wor­ship­pers over­all to Re­pub­lic­an John Mc­Cain. With strong sup­port from minor­it­ies, Obama beat Mc­Cain by 9 per­cent­age points among Cath­ol­ics (who favored George W. Bush over Kerry by 5 points in 2004) and made smal­ler in­roads among evan­gel­ic­als such as Hunter.

Those gains are now in jeop­ardy, ac­cord­ing to Hunter and oth­er re­li­gious lead­ers fum­ing over the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­quire­ment that church-af­fil­i­ated in­sti­tu­tions such as hos­pit­als, schools, and char­it­ies cov­er birth con­trol in their em­ploy­ee health in­sur­ance plans.

“The bound­ar­ies of re­li­gious free­dom and iden­tity are be­ing tres­passed,” said Hunter, who still writes weekly de­vo­tions for Obama and vis­ited the Oval Of­fice last week; he said he keeps his spir­itu­al guid­ance sep­ar­ate from any policy re­com­mend­a­tions he fun­nels to the pres­id­ent. “I do think this will have polit­ic­al re­per­cus­sions in the re­li­gious com­munity,” Hunter ad­ded. “This has the po­ten­tial to be a break­ing point.”

Obama’s Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers cer­tainly hope so. Newt Gin­grich has ac­cused Obama of wa­ging a “war against re­li­gion.” Rick San­tor­um, a de­vout Cath­ol­ic who has put is­sues such as abor­tion and mar­riage at the cen­ter of his cam­paign, used his vic­tory speech after the Mis­souri primary to ac­cuse Obama of steam­rolling the First Amend­ment. Cam­paign­ing earli­er this week in Col­or­ado, front-run­ner Mitt Rom­ney, said sharply, “We must have a pres­id­ent who is will­ing to pro­tect Amer­ica’s first right, a right to wor­ship God.”

The is­sue is po­ten­tially ad­vant­age­ous for Rom­ney, a Mor­mon who once held mod­er­ate po­s­i­tions on abor­tion and gay mar­riage, be­cause it al­lows him to align him­self with the so­cial con­ser­vat­ives who have res­isted his can­did­acy. (Both Gin­grich and Demo­crats, however, have called Rom­ney a hy­po­crite on the birth-con­trol is­sue. As gov­ernor of Mas­sachu­setts, he en­forced a rule re­quir­ing Cath­ol­ic hos­pit­als to provide emer­gency con­tra­cep­tion to rape vic­tims, after the Le­gis­lature over­rode his veto of the meas­ure.)

On Wed­nes­day, House Speak­er John Boehner put the dis­pute at the cen­ter of his party’s agenda, tak­ing to the House floor to con­demn “an un­am­bigu­ous at­tack on re­li­gious free­dom in our coun­try.” He vowed to over­turn the pro­vi­sion stem­ming from Obama’s sweep­ing health care re­form plan. The fight over that le­gis­la­tion has already sorely tested the pres­id­ent’s re­la­tion­ship with re­li­gious lead­ers, who feared that it would al­low tax­pay­er dol­lars to cov­er abor­tion.

To the ex­tent that Re­pub­lic­ans suc­ceed in fram­ing the cur­rent de­bate as one over re­li­gious liberty, the con­tro­versy over the so-called con­science clause could dam­age Obama at the polls. A per­ceived threat to re­li­gious free­dom could pull more-cas­u­al church­go­ers, who typ­ic­ally lean Demo­crat­ic, closer to reg­u­lar church­go­ers, who tend to vote Re­pub­lic­an, said John Green, a Uni­versity of Ak­ron polit­ic­al-sci­ence pro­fess­or who spe­cial­izes in the in­ter­sec­tion of re­li­gion and polit­ics.

In 2008, exit polls showed that the more fre­quently white Cath­ol­ic voters went to church, the less likely they were to fa­vor Obama. He got the votes of only 41 per­cent of white Cath­ol­ics who at­ten­ded church weekly or more; 47 per­cent of those who at­ten­ded a few times a month; and 54 per­cent of those who at­ten­ded a few times a year or nev­er.

The re­la­tion­ship of re­li­gion and polit­ics could in­flu­ence the out­come of the 2012 elec­tion in battle­ground states with large Cath­ol­ic com­munit­ies, in­clud­ing Iowa, Michigan, Mis­souri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wis­con­sin, Green ad­ded. “The real prob­lem for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion would be if the [birth-con­trol] is­sue moved some of those less re­li­gious Cath­ol­ics,” Green said. “The is­sue might also move the reg­u­lar Mass-at­tend­ing Cath­ol­ics to vote even more Re­pub­lic­an.”

But if Demo­crats win the mes­sage war and frame the is­sue as a mat­ter of pub­lic policy that in­volves wo­men’s health and ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans may find them­selves on the los­ing side of the ar­gu­ment. In a sur­vey by the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute, 52 per­cent of Cath­ol­ic voters agreed that em­ploy­ee health plans should cov­er birth con­trol. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is also tout­ing a Guttmach­er In­sti­tute study that found 98 per­cent of Cath­ol­ic wo­men have used birth con­trol.

“Ob­vi­ously, this is not a war against the Cath­ol­ic Church. I’m Cath­ol­ic, and I don’t find that there’s a war against me at all,” said Kath­leen Kennedy Town­send, the former Mary­land lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor and a mem­ber of one of the na­tion’s most prom­in­ent Cath­ol­ic fam­il­ies. “This is about wo­men’s health and pro­tect­ing the rights of all cit­izens. If Re­pub­lic­ans want to fight about con­tra­cep­tion be­ing avail­able for wo­men, I think they will be on the wrong side of his­tory and the wrong side of wo­men’s health.”

A Wall Street Journ­al column this week by three Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors — Jeanne Shee­han of New Hamp­shire, Bar­bara Box­er of Cali­for­nia, and Patty Mur­ray of Wash­ing­ton — tied crit­ics of Obama’s policy on con­tra­cept­ive cov­er­age to the de­cision by the Susan G. Ko­men Found­a­tion to cut fund­ing to Planned Par­ent­hood. A massive pub­lic out­cry forced the breast-can­cer char­ity to re­verse it­self. “Once again,” the sen­at­ors wrote, “they are try­ing to force their polit­ics on wo­men’s per­son­al health care de­cisions.”

Young voters, wo­men, and in­de­pend­ents helped to elect Obama in 2008. If Re­pub­lic­ans over­reach on con­tra­cep­tion, those voters will help off­set any sup­port the pres­id­ent loses from re­li­giously de­vout voters, who lean Re­pub­lic­an any­way. But if the GOP suc­ceeds in wrap­ping the is­sue in the mantle of re­li­gious liberty, Obama will struggle to re­build the di­verse co­ali­tion that put him in the
White House.


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