Obama vs. Catholics, Catholics vs. Obama

It seems that Catholics and Obama are at odds nowadays.  At one point, many believed that this adversarial relationship would prove fatal to the re-election hopes of the President.  This, of course, did not factor heavily in the last election.

The article finds it entirely possible that Catholics vote liberally but says that the Obama administration has completely disregarded this vote.  In the end, it didn’t seem to matter but this article frames the argument that the Obama administration currently disregards the wants and needs of the Catholic electorate.

Exit polling tells us that in every presidential election since 1972, the candidate who has won Catholics has won the popular vote as well. To the unsophisticated, this statistic might suggest that the Catholic vote is tremendously important. But the self-consciously savvy often invoke it as evidence that “the Catholic vote” doesn’t really exist at all – that self-identified Catholics are as diverse and divided as the country as a whole, and thus any campaign that wins over swing voters in general will inevitably win over Catholic swing voters as well.

The truth lies somewhere in between. The Catholic vote does look a lot like the American vote in microcosm, encompassing liberals and conservatives, the lukewarm and the devout, the partisan and the uncommitted and everything in between. But as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru points out, there is evidence that Catholic swing voters are slightly more up for grabs than the average independent. Ponnuru notes that George W. Bush “improved his share of Catholic voters between 2000 and 2004 more than he did his overall share; and the Republican share of the Catholic vote fell a bit more between 2004 and 2008 than did the Republican share of the overall vote.”

What’s more, not all swing voters have the same interests and priorities, and the Catholic swing voter has a fairly distinctive profile. As Mark Stricherz of (appropriately enough) CatholicVote.Org has argued, such voters are more likely to be “culturally conservative, economically populist or liberal, and moderate to liberal on foreign policy.” (They’re also more likely to abound in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.) Hence the advice that the Catholic Democrat Jim Arkedis offered to the Obama campaign in this space last week: To win Catholic swing voters, emphasize social justice and economic solidarity, but don’t try “to drive a wedge between the faithful and official church positions” on culture-war issues.

This is sound advice for Democratic politicians, but it’s also advice that this particular Democratic White House has conspicuously failed to take. Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate requiring religious institutions to purchase health care plans that cover sterilization, contraception and the morning-after pill has made the institutional Church itself – its universities, its schools, its hospitals, its charitable organizations – an issue in this election.

Initially, this looked like a potential political disaster for the president, one that produced a rare united Catholic front in opposition to the administration’s policy. But the White House’s cleverly conceived compromise proposal succeeded in undoing some of the damage: By promising that insurers, rather than the religious institutions themselves, would be liable for paying for the controversial products and procedures, the administration persuaded many liberal-leaning Catholics to walk back their opposition to the mandate.

The Catholic bishops, however, were not mollified, arguing – correctly, in my view – that the administration’s modified rule was an accounting fiction, which changed the description of the policy without changing its substance. The government would still be determining what kinds of health care plans religious institutions could and could not purchase, leaving those institutions with the same choice between (as National Review’s Yuval Levin put it) “paying an insurer to provide their workers with access to a product that violates their convictions or paying a fine to the government.”

What has followed has been a test of the bishops’ ability to shepherd their own church. The Obama White House clearly hoped that most of the Catholic institutions directly affected by the mandate would embrace the supposed compromise, isolating the bishops not only from more liberal members of their flock but from touchstones of American Catholic identity like Catholic Charities and the University of Notre Dame. This would frame the issue as yet another intra-Catholic dispute over sexuality and abortion, rather than an external assault on Catholic religious liberty.

Seen in this light, Georgetown University’s decision to invite Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services Secretary, to speak at its commencement last week was exactly the kind of development the White House was hoping for, since it opened a split between a prominent Catholic university and the Catholic hierarchy over the proper response to the administration’s policy.

The lawsuits that the Catholic bishops filed against Sebelius’s department this week, on the other hand, are bad news for the White House, because they were filed not only on behalf of individual dioceses but on behalf of numerous other Catholic organizations as well – charitable groups, health care organizations, and a group of colleges and universities that included, yes, Notre Dame.

Whether these organizations win in court will presumably depend on how the judicial branch weighs the public health concern involved. It’s true that religious institutions can’t be exempt from every regulation they don’t like, and maybe the courts will accept the argument that it’s worth sacrificing a measure of religious liberty in order to marginally expand the number of insurance plans covering contraception.

But the mere existence of the suit, and the diversity of the institutions associated with it, creates a political headache for the Obama campaign. For decades, Democratic politicians have found ways to win Catholic swing voters despite taking positions that are at odds with the Catholic Church’s views on abortion, same-sex marriage, and yes, contraception. But it will be considerably harder for this White House to win over those same voters if it seems to be picking a fight with American Catholicism as a culture — with the local Catholic hospital, the local Catholic soup kitchen, and yes, the Fighting Irish.

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