Beliefs Politics

Five reasons why Obama is losing the contraception fight

White House photo by Pete Souza.
President Obama won the overall Catholic vote in 2008 but risks alienating white Catholic voters with a plan to mandate insurance coverage of contraception at religious institutions.

President Obama won the overall Catholic vote in 2008 but risks alienating white Catholic voters with a plan to mandate insurance coverage of contraception at religious institutions.

(RNS) The White House has surprised observers and disappointed some liberal allies by signaling that it is willing to compromise and provide a broader religious exemption in its controversial regulations requiring all employers to provide free contraception coverage.

Given that birth control use is almost universal – even among Catholics – many wonder why the Obama administration could wind up retreating on its pledge.

Here are five reasons that may help explain the political dynamic the president is facing:

1. It’s about religious freedom, not birth control: U.S. Catholic bishops, who led the battle against the Health and Human Services Department mandate, know that they long ago lost their own flock on the contraception issue — 98 percent of Catholics use birth control, according to surveys. So they have carefully reframed the issue as a fight for religious freedom – an effort to keep the government from forcing the Catholic Church and other religious groups to subsidize something that goes against their teachings. That makes it a violation of conscience, a sacred principle that transcends any specific tenet of faith.

That argument also lends itself to the kind of heated rhetoric that plays well in today’s supercharged political atmosphere. For example, bishops and their allies are accusing the president of “anti-Catholicism” and worse: “The Obama administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, ‘To hell with you!’ ” Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said after the HHS regulations were announced.

The bishops don’t have as much credibility with the laity as they used to, thanks to the clergy sex abuse scandal, among other things. But Catholics are still a potent tribe, and if outsiders are seen as attacking the church, Catholics can get defensive – and they can get even.

2. Obama has lost even the support of his liberal Catholic allies: Case in point: the HHS mandate has been opposed by liberal and centrist Catholics who have supported the administration on a range of other issues — including the Catholic Health Association and the NETWORK social justice lobby — and even went to bat to help pass health care reform despite threats from the bishops.

The president “utterly botched” the religious exemptions issue, wrote Washington Post columnist and liberal Catholic E.J. Dionne, and “Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.”

“J’accuse!” Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the liberal National Catholic Reporter, wrote in a florid column that channeled Émile Zola’s famous 1898 letter accusing the French government of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair. “The issue of conscience protections is so foundational, I do not see how I ever could, in good conscience, vote for this man again.”

3. It’s not just Catholics: Even though evangelicals and other conservative Protestants generally don’t have religious objections to contraception, they do have a big problem with “big government” and with perceived infringements on religious freedom. Evangelicals – both their leaders and their troops – have never been big Barack Obama supporters anyway, so they were happy to provide any electoral and rhetorical muscle the Catholic hierarchy could not muster.

“We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime,” evangelical leaders Timothy George and Chuck Colson wrote in an open letter to their fellow believers on Wednesday (Feb. 8). George and Colson compared the administration mandates to policies enacted in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.

4. It gives Republicans a potent campaign wedge issue: Mitt Romney wasted no time in accusing Obama of launching an “assault on religion” by way of the contraception mandate, and he declared that his first act as president would be to overturn the HHS regulations. “Remarkably, under this president’s administration, there is an assault on religion, an assault on the conviction and the religious beliefs of members of our society,” Romney said.

Romney’s rivals, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, were not to be outdone, and ramped up their rhetoric against Obama – while also noting that Romney had accepted similar policies while he was governor of Massachusetts.

In short, this is a political fight that the White House neither wants nor needs in an already tough re-election campaign.

5. Obama needs the Catholic vote: In particular, he needs the support of white Catholics, which is the core of this large swing vote (nearly one-quarter of the electorate). They are concentrated in crucial battleground states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and while Obama won the overall Catholic vote 54 percent to 46 percent in 2008, he lost the white Catholic vote, 47 percent to 53 percent.

“To the extent Catholic voters think of this as a religious liberty issue, it does have the potential to pull Catholic voters toward Republicans or away from Democrats,” John Green, an expert on religious voting patterns and director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, told Bloomberg Businessweek.

A poll on the contraception mandate released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute showed Catholics overall tended to support free contraceptive coverage, but white Catholics were evenly split on the issue. The Obama campaign can’t afford to sacrifice any of those votes, or risk watching the issue grow as a political liability when the election season heats up.


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • THIS “religious war” being waged for the hearts and minds of the American electorate is a fabrication of the Catholic church and right wing religious extremist, using deception, manipulation and propaganda, methods Christ himself never had to use. The Obama administration is right in their decision to require religious affiliated public institutions to include birth control in the health insurance policies made available to their employees and they are also right in NOT requiring churches, synagogs, and mosques, to provide birth control to their employees if doing so violates the tenants of their faith. When one considers 98% of Catholics use birth control and 58% of Catholics, 68% of religiously unaffiliated Americans, 55% of all Americans, 62% of all women, 71% of Democrats and 51% of Independents all believe employer health plans should be required to provide free birth control coverage, it becomes obvious this “war” is nothing more than a propaganda campaign being waged by the male leadership of these religious groups for political gain, the subjugation of women and not religious rights and religious freedom. You can support the Obama administration and women’s access to birth control by participating in the ACLU’s campaign to pressure Congress and HHS not to revoke these new regulations here

  • While the Obama administration is handing out exemptions to the law, maybe atheists should ask for an exemption to the ban on same-gender marriage. Atheists don’t recognize homosexuality as a sin. It isn’t in their unholy book. So they should be allowed to marry gay people in every state. Barring atheists from marrying gay atheists violates their conscience.

    Dear Pres. Obama,
    Please do not retract the order requiring religious institutions, especially those accepting Federal funding, to offer insurance coverage for contraception. Instead compromise.

    In exchange for the church’s compliance, offer any priest who wants it a life time membership in NAMBLA. Women get the coverage, priests are delighted, and we can track them through their membership. It’s a win-win-win for everyone.

    Yours in reason,

  • Obama didn’t lose at all. Anyone who thinks he did, doesn’t understand the honest meaning and honest practice of honest arbitration and compromise. As usual, Republicans and too many religious groups, like the Catholic church, presume they are alone at a table and that they manage the kitchen. Obama put his ideas on the table, with the clear announcement at the start that adjustments would be needed. This was honest politics, not the dirty kind currently practiced by Republican extremists acting like they can have everything just their way. Think John Boehner. Think Mitch McConnell. Think tea party mentalities. Think Tim Dolan, archbishop of New York. Hey, think Benedict in the Vatican who gives Dolan all his working orders. And what’s the result of honesty and compromise for Obama? All those good people who want everything their way continue to use his honest, compromising ways to trash him as opposed to decency, opposed to liberty, opposed to religious freedom. After all, he is a “foreigner,” and worst of all, he’s part “black.” Those who oppose Boehner, McConnell, the tea party, Dolan, and Benedict also have a right to their liberty and their religious freedom. It’s an ugly distortion to claim, because people like Dolan can’t succeed in forcing this country to adapt to his theology, that there is even a threat of loss of liberty or religious freedom. They lie. And I think some of their preaching opposes lying.

  • Another thought, that vast majority of Catholics, men and women, who disagree with their church headquarters and practice various forms of birth control, must now have their freedom and their religious liberty abrogated because a bunch of their celibate, presumably chaste, leaders must speak out again birth control. The Catholic Church continues to demand public funds for its “charitable” works, but it doesn’t think it should subscribe to any of our laws. They call all the punches. The Catholic Church is pushing big time to take funds away from public education to support their schools with vouchers, or quietly organize “charter” schools, or support inadequate home schooling. And what is the motive of so many Catholic hospitals merging with non-Catholic hospitals and then attempting to force their Catholic ideas, like birth control, on everyone? They claim it’s for the mutual economic benefit, even salvation, of all entities in the merger, but then they set out to force their moral theology on the whole merger. One wonders if theology wasn’t the purpose all along. Nothing is wiser than the separation of church and state. And it’s churches that cause the most trouble whenever separation is violated. As for unity among churches? What’s the point? They exist as separate entities precisely because they think and act differently.