How Obama can win the culture war

While Republicans are distracted by cultural issues, Democrats can seize electoral ground


Barack Obama’s push to force Catholic institutions like universities and hospitals to include coverage for contraceptives in their health care plans brought about the kind of cleavage that was reminiscent of early culture wars. Catholic bishops, social conservatives and Republican presidential candidates united in framing it as a question of religious liberty and constitutional guarantees—with both getting trampled upon by an overreaching federal government. To them, this was a wedge issue in the contest against Obama.

While the right went ballistic, critics on the left felt Obama had started a needless battle on an issue that is both divisive and polarizing. By week’s end, Obama was already pitching a compromise that shifted contraceptive coverage from the institutions to the health insurance providers. The compromise did not produce unanimity, but it did bring the temperature down.

Could it be that Obama was using the right’s hair-trigger temper on religious issues against it? After all, the contraceptive controversy shifted the focus of Republican rhetoric away from the economy and to a cultural issue that plays well with the Republican base, but less so with independent voters. With improving economic numbers and Republican candidates unable to present a compelling alternative program, Obama is setting the agenda in a way that he has not done since the early months of his presidency.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney spent most of the week reeling from a triple setback against the latest anti-Mitt candidate, Rick Santorum. He attended the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, where he claimed to be “severely” conservative and pandered even more to the militant right. Romney also found himself on the defensive over a similar contraceptive provision in his own health care reform initiative when he was governor of Massachusetts. Romney may have won the CPAC straw poll and the Maine caucuses, but the conservative base is still not comfortable with Romney.

Moreover, two weeks away from the crucial Michigan primary, Rick Santorum’s campaign will likely be helped by the rekindling of the culture war. Santorum, to his credit and unlike Newt Gingrich—remember him?—is concentrating on issues and policies rather than going after Romney personally. And he is scoring some points in the process. Romney seems uncertain in his responses to Santorum and cultural issues are not his strong suit. Did this enter Obama’s calculation?

There is also evidence that Obama may have miscalculated and needlessly alienated some Catholic voters. Former Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are said to have warned against the move. But at the end of the day, contraception is not as divisive as abortion even if conservatives tend to lump the two together, and Catholics generally don’t follow the Church on this one. Obama knows this. The contraceptive compromise will likely pass the test, and the Republicans will have gotten distracted once again in a year where the economy was supposed to trump all other issues.


How Obama can win the culture war

  1. “But at the end of the day, contraception is not as divisive as abortion even if conservatives tend to lump the two together, and Catholics generally don’t follow the Church on this one.”

    Very true, although it isn’t conservatives who tend to lump the two together.  On the contrary, we make the very clear distinction that one is wrong but shouldn’t be illegal since it is a matter of personal morality, while the other is wrong and should be prosecuted since it is identical to murder.  It’s the left that tries to equate the two so that abortion becomes an issue of personal morality.

    That said, this particular issue involves both, since some of the coverage is not for contraception, strictly speaking, but abortifacients.  For the biologically challenged, contraception prevents conception.  Abortifacients kill the newly conceived child.

    One final point:  I rarely agree with Parisella, but I generally find him a reasonable fellow.  On this issue I’m a little surprised at his position:  “Catholics generally don’t follow the Church on this one.”    Should that matter?  We are talking about the state forcing people to actively support something their religion bans.  This is expressly forbidden by the Constitution.  Shouldn’t that be the primary consideration, rather than how this will play as an election issue?  As this ordinary citizen put it (better than I ever could) here:  “Even if you think that I am wrong to oppose contraception, can’t you still see that I am free to oppose it without being subject to legal force? Or is there no longer any room for tolerance of religious differences?”

    • It’s the economy ,Gaunilon . Why are they allowing him to distract them ?Starting to like Santorum .

      • The economy is certainly important, and may well be a winning issue for Republicans in the next election. However, basic freedoms such as freedom of religion precede it in importance. Furthermore, in the end one can’t have a successful free-market economy without a free populace.

        • What religiuos freedom was lost ? Where were the bishops when Catholic boys had their freedom violated ? What hypocrisy . Don’t fall for it . You are better than that .

          • You’re right Oliver. Now that a few clerics have betrayed their calling, we might as well make it illegal to be a Catholic employer. That Constitution-thingy is such a bore, and anyway, it’s not like any other religions or freedoms will ever be affected.

    • Can Catholic hospitals refuse to hire gay doctors and nurses?  What about Jewish professors at Catholic universities?

      Isn’t there a finer line here than your comment implies?  On the one hand, there’s the issue of forcing a Catholic institution to provide health care coverage for some health products that the Catholic Church objects to.  On the other hand, there’s forcing non-Catholic employees of Catholic institutions (not Catholic Churches mind you, but institutions funded by the Church) to live without health care coverage for items that go against someone else’s beliefs.

      • ” On the other hand, there’s forcing non-Catholic employees of Catholic institutions (not Catholic Churches mind you, but institutions funded by the Church) to live without health care coverage for items that go against someone else’s beliefs.

        False. No one is forcing non-Catholic employees to live without contraceptives. All that is at issue is whether the employer will be forced to provide them with these contraceptives.

        It’s one thing to let people harm themselves – we’re all adults, and we’re responsible for our own actions. It’s another thing to force Catholic Jill to support lapsed-Catholic Jack in his harmful habits. There are a lot of us (myself included) who would literally take a bullet to the head before we would do this.

        “Can Catholic hospitals refuse to hire gay doctors and nurses? What about Jewish professors at Catholic universities?”

        Since hiring people of other faiths or sexual orientations is not contrary to Catholic doctrine, this is an entirely different issue from the one under discussion. However, for the record (1) being gay is not likely to impact one’s job as a doctor/nurse, so I doubt Catholic hospitals would care, and (2) being non-Catholic can indeed impact one’s performance as a teacher at a Catholic school, so yes. Likewise Jewish/Muslim/Protestant schools often refuse to hire Catholics for teaching positions, and there is nothing wrong with that.

        • So, if a religion believes that blood donations and organ transplants are morally wrong, would it be OK for them to refuse to provide health care coverage for lung transplants to their non-believer employees?

          • (1) Contraceptives are hardly comparable to lung transplants. No one’s life depends on getting the pill STAT! We’re talking about a class A carcinogen here, right up there with asbestos and benzene. It just happens to be supported by Planned Parenthood and various other powerful interests.

            And needless to say, there’s even less comparison with abortifacients, which not only aren’t an emergency lifesaving practice but actually kill someone each time (when used as directed).

            (2) Would such a law prohibit the free exercise of religion? If so, the US Constitution prohibits Congress from passing it – prior even to freedom of speech or the press.

          • Free exercise of religion ?No one forces anyone to take them. If you want them , they are provided free of charge. Now it will be provided by the health ins,co’s. Catholics don’t listen to the Pope on this matter. So silly that Republicans fall for this. And you as well. You are smarter than that .All hypocrisy .

          • I certainly agree that a lung transplant is way down the line from the birth control pill, but if the freedom of religion trumps all, why should the Church have to pay the insurance premium that lets someone desecrate someone else’s corpse by taking their organs?

            My point isn’t so much that I think that allowing Church-funded institutions to not provide certain kinds of health coverage to their non-believer employees is necessarily anathema, but rather that it’s a bit of a slippery slope they’re on.

          • @Lord_Kitcheners_Own:disqus , I completely agree that no Church should be required to pay insurance premiums for something that they can not support in good conscience, whether lung transplants or contraceptives.  In the case of contraceptives the absurdity is particularly apparent since they are not “health care” in any way, but rather a whim for people who want to have sex without facing the responsibilities it entails.

    • “We are talking about the state forcing people to actively support something their religion bans.  This is expressly forbidden by the Constitution.”

      No, it’s not.  The constitutional mandate is much more limited—free exercise of religion.  That means the state will let you join whichever religion you want and will not do things to specifically impede your religious practices.  It doesn’t mean that the state is required to provide exemptions to general legislation because it happens to conflict with your religious beliefs.  Mormonism is the classic example here—despite polygamy being a huge part of Mormon religious belief in the Nineteenth-Century, the Supreme Court held that applying the general ban on polygamy to Mormons did not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  Another example would be state laws enforcing a “sabbath”—general laws prohibiting work on Sunday have been upheld on the grounds that it’s a public good to have a day off, while laws guaranteeing everyone the right to have *their* sabbath off have been struck down as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  

      Now, this isn’t to say that exceptions should not be made for religious groups.  They frequently are and for good reason.  But those exceptions are statutorily based and are not typically constitutionally required.  There is honestly no constitutional issue at play in this issue—there is no question that the state can set minimum requirements for health insurance and that those limits can violate the moral beliefs of certain customers (e.g., the state can (and does) require that insurance cover treatment at mixed-gender facilities, despite the objections of ultra-conservative Jews and Muslims).  But, stating that there is no constitutional issue is not the end of the argument.

      • You are talking about legally forcing people to support something which they can not in good conscience support. It’s one thing to demand your right to contracept. It’s another to demand that I support you as you engage in harmful behaviour.

        It is impossible to be a practicing Catholic and run a business if one is legally required to support contraceptive use. Such a law, therefore, effectively outlaws being a practicing Catholic. This is quite clearly in violation of the First Amendment. You might as well make a law which says “Practicing Catholics can no longer own or manage a business.” The effect is the same. Are you seeing the problem here?

        Now, I realize that you and most other Macleans commenters (a) don’t see anything wrong with contraception, and (b) may even be Catholic (nominally) and not see anything wrong with contraception, and that is your business. But you ought to see something wrong with outlawing Catholicism as practiced by those who take it seriously.

        • Can you explain how the rule as currently crafted is different in any real sense from complaints about the government using taxes for purposes that you believe are immoral?  The Pope publicly opposed the war in Iraq, for instance, but I never heard anyone suggest Catholics should stop paying taxes because they were used to fund the war.

          I get that there are technical differences between taxes and non-tax mandated expenses, but I’m not sure the distinction matters much when we are discussing the moral issue underpinning it.

          • It’s a fair question, and was actually addressed by Christ himself. One is morally obliged to pay taxes as a fair rendering to the state for the cost of governance. When the state uses those taxes for evil purposes, one’s responsibility is to change the governing policies (or people), but one is not formally supporting those evil acts by rendering one’s due to the state.

            However, if one pays directly for an evil act, or helps it in some formal way (e.g. referring someone to where they can find what they need to do it) then one has just directly helped one’s neighbor do something harmful, which is not what one does if one loves one’s neighbor.

            So in short, since we justly owe taxes to the government we should pay them, and are not responsible for government then doing things we oppose with those taxes as long as we work to change our government and its policies.

            We do not justly owe anything to an insurance company, and if we pay them for a policy which provides contraceptives we are directly supporting harm. If we pay for abortifacients we’ve directly supported a murder.

            In every age Catholics are pushed to betray our principles. Usually the result is a lot of martyrs, from ancient Rome to modern Communism. This incident is a long way from that but it is interestingly the first step as was done in Elizabethan England – apply fines to those who live according to Catholic principles and prevent them from running businesses.

          • But is there a meaningful difference between (1) you paying the government and the government then paying the insurer and (2) the government mandating that you pay the insurer directly?  

            Also, what about Aquinas’s doctrine of double effect, where an act that has potentially bad/evil effects can nonetheless be good/neutral because the bad effect is not intended by the actor, is not a means to the intended ends, and is outweighed by the intended good ends?  Wouldn’t this qualify here, or is your argument that the harm of providing birth control coverage is worse than the good of providing health care in the first place?  

            I understand that you and others think the use of birth control is wrong; I’m just having trouble seeing how the proposed regulation meaningfully violates your free exercise of your religious beliefs.

          • You know Hoffman, I often spend months on this forum in hope of blundering into a conversation as good as this one. So thank you for that.

            As to the first, there is a meaningful difference. I have to pay the government as a matter of justice, and that money is for the authorities to dispense with as they deem best. As long as I am working to change bad government policy, I am not formally responsibly for their misuse of my tax revenue. This is because (a) government has the right to collect this money, and (b) I do not have the right to tell government how to spend it.

            However, if the government tells me to pay for an insurance policy for my employees that will support their harmful acts, I am obligated to refuse. This is because (a) government has no inherent right to tell me to do this, so my cooperation is a matter of choice rather than justice, and (b) I would be formally supporting evil by directly paying for it, as opposed to giving it to someone whom I owe money (the government) and then watching in dismay as they spend it to hurt people.

            As to the principle of double effect I would say this. First, it is not clear to me that the act of paying for coverage of contraceptives is separate from the act of paying for the health insurance. Since the policy explicitly covers contraceptives, those seem to be one and the same thing. So instead, I would be justifying my evil act (paying for contraceptive use) by a good end (covering health insurance for the poor), which would be trying to make the end justify the means, thereby rendering the overall act evil. This is in distinct contrast to the government/taxation case, where I pay money to the government because I owe it for the functioning of the state, and then misuses of that money are a separate and unintended consequence (albeit foreseen) on my part. The taxation case might fall under double effect, but not the direct payment for insurance which includes harming people.

            Even without that primary objection, it is dubious that the good in this case (paying for health insurance) outweighs the evil (contraceptive use) where the coverage includes abortifacients (as the Obama mandate does). Saving thousands from getting sick without health care does not seem to outweigh killing thousands of unborn children.

    • Of course the religious have inextricably linked contraceptives and abortion. I find it amusing that you would attempt to claim otherwise.

      Let’s be more honest than that shall we?

      Point blank: The reason that the orthodoxy is against contraceptives is because they consider sex inherently sinful unless the purpose is to get pregnant. Full stop.

      So the orthodoxy is using an antiquated definition of “moral” to undermine responsible behaviour and thus increase the number of abortions women seek.

      If one truly considered abortion to be “murder” then one should be supportive of the use of contraceptives, since they would reduce the number of abortions if they were used more often and more responsibly.

      Instead it appears that the religious right would prefer to drive up the number of abortions and then wag its finger at people.

      So being “righteous” is more important than working to reduce the number of abortions?

      That about says it all right there.

      • Your understanding of those on the other side of this issue is so poor that I can’t even begin to discuss it with you. I will pray for you.

        • Pray for the priests who did awful things .
          to kids.

  2. There is no ‘culture war’….there is just the usual amount of nonsense in a US election year.

  3. This is not about contraception as much as it is about religious freedom, as protected in the Constitution.
     Do you think that the insurance providers are going to provide this service “free” or are they going to pass the cost on to their subscribers? And by the way, who pays the premiums to the Insurance company? I, or anyone else, should not be forced to purchase anything by federal government law.
     Can the federal government force me to buy a Chevy Volt because it is enviornmentally correct or that it is “patriotic” to support a company that the feds bailed out?
    This is only the tip of the iceberg, people
    Remember the adage ” When they came for the Catholics, I did not speak up because I was not a Catholic…….”

    • It isn’t about any of those things.

      You guys fall for every piece of sucker-bait that comes along.

    • This is silly talk . Drop it . Where was the Pope on the sex scandal ? Enough said.

  4. I don’t think the specifics of this issue matter so much politically. When it comes to social issues, people tend to have pretty hard lines of “us” vs. “them”. Evangelical protestants, who may not even have objections to contraception, will nonetheless see this as an issue of Obama attacking religious freedom. Abortion rights advocates will see this as the protection of reproductive autonomy. The fact that Obama was willing to go after “those fundamentalist nutjobs” on contraception, suggests that he might be willing to do the same on other issues.

    You see this a lot. For instance, when Newt Gingrich attacked Mitt Romney (before the Florida primary) for not providing kosher meals to seniors, he wasn’t just specifically targeting Jewish voters (who only made up 1% of the Florida electorate). Rather he was targeting religious voters in general, saying “I’m one of you, and Mitt Romney is not.” Or alternately, in Canada, there is essentially no evidence that Stephen Harper wants to reverse abortion rights. However, other factors made people on the left afraid that he might (eg. ending speeches with God Bless Canada, his opposition to gay marriage). 

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