For the last few weeks Catholic clergy and GOP politicians have denounced the Obama administration for forcing Catholic-affiliated institutions to provide coverage for birth control and abortion-producing pills. After hearing strong reactions from his Catholic Democratic advisors, Obama offered an apparent compromise (if a pun may be permitted) to coat the bitter pill. Arrangements would be made with insurance companies to supply the coverage, without directly involving institutions that are under the Catholic Church or under other protesting religious authorities. Presumably Evangelicals would express the same objection as religious Catholics to subsidizing what seems to be a form of abortion.
The Catholic clergy vigorously protested Obama’s plan in its original form and in its not significantly revised draft. Led by the about-to-become Cardinal of New York Timothy Dolan, clerics from across the country thundered in sermons against forcing Catholics to act against their consciences. Dispensing birth control particularly to the unmarried is an offense against Catholic moral teachings, but assisting in making abortion services available by paying for them goes beyond that. It is seen as turning Catholic institutions into accomplices in homicide. It would have been impossible for Catholic parishioners to have missed this message. And it would have been equally hard for TV news watchers to have missed the assertions made by all GOP presidential candidates that Obama was trampling on the religious consciences of individual Americans. He was doing this by removing an exemption that had been granted to religious institutions to withhold coverage for what they found morally objectionable.
Meanwhile there have been dire predictions that Obama and his party will pay for their presumptuous behavior at the polls. Supposedly American Catholics, who until now have been mostly Democrats, will change sides in the next presidential race and vote overwhelmingly Republican. For the clergy this outcome is being sought to punish a president who has never swerved from the secularist Left. Republicans desire the same outcome for more practical reasons, but perhaps just as passionately. If attacking Obama in the name of “individual religious freedom” can get them back into the White House, an awful lot of Republican politicians will be rejoicing.
There are two problems with this interpretation. For one thing, we are talking here not so much about “individuals” as about the largest church in the country and about other traditional Christian institutions that until now have operated mostly without harassment. Obama and the anti-Christian Left, which includes much of the media, would like to change our society. Clearly they have a cultural agenda, which consists of promoting a post-Christian form of religion centered on Political Correctness. In this new culture Martin Luther King, various feminists and other figures of the revolutionary changes that remade this country since the 1960s will be given places of prominence, while older Christian institutions and sacred festivals will receive less government attention. It was no accident that when Obama gave an address at Catholic Georgetown soon after assuming the presidency, he ordered that all Christian symbols be removed from his immediate vicinity. At the time it seemed that the new president was trying to distance himself from old religious associations. At the very least he gave the impression of being an immaculate secularist.
Even more importantly, there is no indication that Obama is losing his Catholic base of support. His Catholic, feminist Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius pushed for making the now challenged coverage available to those working in Catholic-affiliated institutions. Another Catholic, feminist, and a strong advocate of gay marriage, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, is visibly overjoyed by what Obama has just done. Gillibrand’s popularity in New York has soared to such dizzying heights that no Republican thus far has expressed any willingness to run against her. This lady represents a heavily Catholic state in which Obama would carry two-thirds of the vote against any Republican contender.
Those who foresee a dramatic about-turn in American Catholic voting behavior are bound to be disappointed. They are dealing here not with a theologically united community but with what is left of a tribal community that attends church out of family habit. According to a poll taken by Public Policy Polling, 59 % of American Catholics approve of what Obama imposed on Catholic-affiliated services. Those interviewed in fact seem peeved that their clergy would oppose such a progressive measure. The once proverbial blue-collar Catholic of sixty years ago, who was imbued with deeply traditional attitudes, is a relic of the post-World War Two past. In a brilliant biography of a devout Catholic and outspoken conservative, The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan, English author Timothy Stanley depicts his subject as the flamboyant representative of a once sturdy Catholic working-class culture. Although Stanley respects that culture, he does notice that it’s all but vanished. The GOP should not count too heavily on its comeback.