Andrew Sullivan: How Obama Set a Contraception Trap for the Right


The culture wars are over, right? Perhaps some helpful soul could inform the Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh, who last week calmly explained that "the Obama administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, 'To hell with you!'" A quiet word in the ear of the dogged opponent of gay marriage Maggie Gallagher might have helped too. Just after Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California, was struck down by a court on narrow grounds, she titled a blog post: "Ninth Circuit to 7 Million California Voters: You Are Irrational Bigots."

Not to be outdone, newly insurgent presidential candidate Rick Santorum described a secular society not based on religious principles as a renewal of the French Revolution and "the guillotine." Evangelical voters lined up in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado to vault him back into the front of the race. And when the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation withdrew support from Planned Parenthood, the reaction from the other side was almost as ferocious. "You don't make good on a 'promise' to your dead sister by selling out women who need you most," wrote Mary Elizabeth Williams on Salon. When Komen reversed its decision, the pro-life Republican who had been behind it, Karen Handel, resigned, complaining to Fox News about "the level of vicious attacks and coercion ... by Planned Parenthood. It's simply outrageous."

Who knew the sexual and religious politics of the 1990s were suddenly back, under the president who promised he'd try to end them? And who knew the president himself—who has made an elegant art form out of avoiding exactly these kinds of controversies in his first three years—would have made the final call on the one that suddenly united the entire Republican right in roiling rage? That decision was the now-infamous one to propose a new rule to mandate coverage of contraception, sterilization, and morning-after pills in all health-insurance plans, exempting purely religious institutions, but including Catholic-run hospitals, colleges, and charities who serve the general public and employ many non-Catholics. This, House Speaker John Boehner declared, was an unprecedented assault on the First Amendment by a president who Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently said was "at war against organized religion."

Pouring more gasoline on the rhetorical fire, evangelical leader Chuck Colson compared opposing the Obama administration's contraception rule to Catholic religious resistance to the Nazis. The next week, for good measure, President Obama was conspicuously seen going to church. And at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama himself defended a fairer tax code as an explicitly religious issue for him: "If I'm willing to give something up as somebody who's been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that's going to make economic sense," he said. "But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus' teaching that 'for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.'"

Suddenly no-drama Obama was neck deep in the kind of religious warfare he vowed to avoid. Many pundits—led by older white Catholic men, such as Joe Scarborough and my friend Chris Matthews and even the fair-minded liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne—declared his decision on contraception as not only morally wrong but a politically disastrous violation of religious freedom. Suddenly the specter of 2004—when the culture-war issue of same-sex marriage gave Ohio and the entire election to George W. Bush—reemerged, and some conservative Catholic Democrats began to panic. Within the administration, almost all the white Catholic men opposed the decision—from Bill Daley to Leon Panetta. But critically, the support for the decision came from women, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and key adviser Valerie Jarrett chief among them. So Obama didn't ignite just a culture war but a religious and gender war as well. Welcome to the election focused almost entirely on jobs.

But the conflict-driven headlines and predictions of disaster for Obama are, in my view, deeply misleading. Right now, they are driven both by cable news's love of a good fight and high ratings and by the Republican primary campaign, in which the candidates, especially Newt Gingrich and Santorum, are desperately battling to unify the evangelical base, which is convinced its faith is somehow under attack. In the longer run, however, I suspect this sudden confluence of kerfuffles will be seen as one of the last gasps of the culture war, not its reignition. That's especially possible since Obama's swift walk-back last Friday, when he proposed an utterly sensible compromise, which exempts both churches and other religious institutions that cater to the general public from directly covering or paying for birth control, shifting the coverage requirement to insurance companies. So Catholic organizations will be able to stay out of the contraception question entirely, while contraception for all women will be kept free of charge. Instead of being lose-lose for the president, it became win-win. Most Catholics will be fine with this compromise, as are the Catholic Health Association and Planned Parenthood. But the bishops? They've gone out on a very long limb. This could be the moment when the culture-war tide finally turns and the social wedge issues long deployed so effectively by the Republican right begin to come back and bite them.

The more Machiavellian observer might even suspect this is actually an improved bait and switch by Obama to more firmly identify the religious right with opposition to contraception, its weakest issue by far, and to shore up support among independent women and his more liberal base. I've found by observing this president closely for years that what often seem like short-term tactical blunders turn out in the long run to be strategically shrewd. And if this was a trap, the religious right walked right into it.

Illustration by Gluekit (source photos from left): Tom Pennington / Getty Images (Santorum); Stephen Brashear / Getty Images (Planned Parenthood); Corbis (stained glass); Jewel Samad / AFP-Getty Images (Obama); David Handschuh / NY Daily News-Getty Images

Take a look at the polling. Ask Americans if they believe that contraception should be included for free in all health-care plans and you get a 55 percent majority in favor, with 40 percent against. Ask American Catholics, and that majority actually rises above the national average, to 58 percent. A 49 percent plurality of all Americans supported the original Obama rule forcing Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage. And once again, American Catholics actually support that more controversial position by a slightly higher margin than all Americans, with 52 percent backing it. So on religious-freedom grounds, the country is narrowly divided, but with a small majority on Obama's side.

And on the issue of contraception itself, studies have shown that a staggering 98 percent of Catholic women not only believe in birth control but have used it. How is it possible to describe this issue as a violation of individual conscience, when no one is forced to use contraception against their will, and most Catholics have already consulted their conscience, are fine with the pill, and want it covered? This is not like abortion, a far, far graver issue. Even the church hierarchy—in a famous commission set up by Pope John XXIII to study birth control—voted to allow oral contraception under some circumstances, only to be controversially vetoed by Pope Paul VI in 1968. And the truth is, there is no real debate among most actual living, breathing American Catholics on the issue, who tend to be more liberal than most Americans. They long ago dismissed the Vatican's position on this. And after the sex-abuse scandal, they are even less likely to take the bishops' moral authority on sexual matters seriously.

From top left: President Obama with Kathleen Sebelius.; Candidate Rick Santorum and his family at CPAC on February 10, 2012.; Anti-same-sex marriage protesters at San Francisco's city hall in August 2010.; A couple kisses at a celebration rally on February 7, 2012, after a U.S. appeals court found Proposition 8 unconstitutional. Clockwise from top left: Larry Downing / Reuters-Landov; Johnathan Ernst / Reuters-Landov; Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters-Landov; Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

In other words, this is a potential political winner for President Obama, not just among liberals, many women, younger voters, and moderates—but among American Catholics! And even more so in light of the pragmatic compromise announced last week, which puts the administration precisely where it should be, and in a much better place than it was before the announcement, and reinforces Obama's reputation as a man willing to compromise, one of his core strengths among independent voters. I found the original rule a step too far. To my mind, when religious institutions play invaluable roles in helping the poor, curing the sick, and housing the homeless, they should be rewarded, not punished. And within reasonable limits, their right to set their own rules on health-care plans should be respected. One reason they do such great work is their religious convictions. We should celebrate that—and try to balance their views (however wrongheaded we may consider them to be) with other legitimate social goals.

But some Republicans and conservative Catholics have already rejected the compromise. They have declared it to be just as inimical to religious freedom as church organizations being forced to pay for their employees' contraception. Before the compromise, the spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops went even further, arguing that entirely secular corporations, if owned or run by faithful Catholics, should be able to exclude contraception from their employees' health-insurance coverage. "If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell," he declared, "I'd be covered by the mandate." And even that would be unacceptable.

So Catholic doctrine should, according to the bishops' spokesman, also apply to non-Catholics—even if they are merely selling burritos.

This kind of rhetoric is not about protecting religious freedom. It is about imposing a particular religious doctrine on those who don't share it as a condition for general employment utterly unrelated to religion at all. And if that is the hill the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical right want to fight and die on, they will lose—and lose badly. Which may in part be why the American bishops, in responding to Obama's compromise, suddenly took a much more restrained tone. Contraception is popular. Even in conservative Mississippi, a recent ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to ban the morning-after pill failed badly at the polls. If this issue won't work for the GOP in Mississippi, they'll have a hard time winning a general election over it. And if the bishops think opposing Obama's compromise will rally Catholics to their cause, they are even more out of touch than they realize. This will indeed become a wedge issue—between the bishops and their flocks. Yes, finally a social wedge issue that helps Democrats, not Republicans.

To make the Republican rhetoric even more absurd, the precompromise version of the Obama insurance rule is already the law in two of the biggest states, New York and California, as Linda Greenhouse has noted in The New York Times. Moreover, as Nick Baumann has documented in Mother Jones, contraception has already been legally required in all health-insurance plans since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2000 that omitting it was unconstitutional sex discrimination. (The Bush administration did nothing to oppose the ruling.) And yet Pastor Rick Warren said last week that he would be prepared to go to jail over the Obama rule (making one wonder why, as a resident of California, he isn't sitting in a cell already). So with this new compromise, Obama has actually increased religious freedom, not restricted it. All of which makes one wonder exactly how genuine the current outrage is—or whether it is part and parcel of a political campaign against Obama rather than a defense of religious freedom.

If the Catholic bishops and the religious right reject the proposed Obama compromise, they will be digging themselves even deeper into positions that are fast losing traction. Time after time, they have rejected compromises on social issues because of fundamentalist rigidity, not Christian engagement with a changing world. They could have agreed, for example, to secular civil unions for gays—and not full "marriage" rights—but instead they insisted that neither was acceptable at all. They could have made a strong and vital case for the immorality and evil of abortion as a civil-rights issue, without demanding it be criminalized by the state. They could have accepted a compromise on contraception in health-care policies, but they have refused. And their fundamentalist intransigence has not worked in persuading anyone.

Over the past decade, for example, we have seen a dramatic increase in support for gay marriage—to the point where it is supported by a majority of Americans. And the most supportive of religious groups—after Jews—are Catholics, with 56 percent of white Catholics and 53 percent of Latino Catholics supporting full marriage rights for gay couples. Only on abortion do Catholics come remotely close to agreeing with their leaders. Which is one reason why so many Catholics support contraception in health-care plans, especially for the poor: because it prevents the far greater evil of abortion.

There was a time not so long ago when Catholics and other Christians weighed various moral claims to find a balance. Sometimes, the lesser of two evils was preferable. For centuries, for example, Catholic theologians, including the greatest, Thomas Aquinas, argued that human life begins not at conception but at some point in the second trimester. For centuries the Catholic Church allowed married priests. For centuries Catholics believed that extending the end of life by extreme measures like feeding tubes was a violation of natural death, which Christians of all people should not be afraid of. But this ancient, moderate, pragmatic reasoning has been rejected by the last two popes, who have increasingly become rigid, fundamentalist, and hostile to prudential balancing acts in the real, modern world we live in. Their radical fundamentalism—so alien to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and to so many lay Catholics—has discredited the core priorities of Christianity, failed to persuade their own flock, and led to increasing politicization. And the obsession among Catholic and evangelical leaders with an issue like contraception stands in stark contrast to their indifference to, for example, the torture in which the last administration engaged, the growing social inequality fostered by unfettered capitalism, the Christian moral imperative of universal health care, and the unjust use of the death penalty. That's why younger evangelicals are also alienated. They want to refocus on issues of the poor, prison rape, human trafficking, and the kind of injustices Jesus emphasized, rather than on these sexual sideshows the older generation seems so obsessed with.

As for politics, the Republican fusion with the Vatican is also, it seems to me, a terrible mistake for the party. Obama's greatest skill is in getting his opponents to overreach and self-destruct. And this issue could not be more tailor-made to benefit the candidate with real potential pull with far-right-wing Catholics and evangelicals: Santorum. If the GOP really makes this issue central in the next month or so, Santorum (whose campaign claims to have raised $2.2 million in the two days following his victories last week) is by far the likeliest candidate to benefit. It could finally unite the Christian fundamentalist right behind him—especially since Romneycare contained exactly the same provisions on contraception that Obamacare did before last week's compromise was announced. That's right: Romneycare can now accurately be portrayed as falling to the left of Obamacare on the contraception issue. This could very well be the issue that finally galvanizes the religious right, especially in the South. Imagine how Santorum could use that on Super Tuesday. In fact, it could be the issue that wins him the nomination. And do you really think that would hurt Obama in the fall?

Editor's Note: Due to a production error, the opening sentence was originally left off of the Web version of this essay. It has been restored.