I have been engaged in a friendly e-mail dispute with some Christian friends over the 2012 presidential race. As little enthusiasm as I have for the Obama administration (which is to say, none), I cannot for the life of me understand the apocalyptic rhetoric and conviction so many conservatives have about him. I talk all the time with fellow conservatives who have a visceral fear of the Kenyan Marxist winning a second term. I honestly don’t get it. As you know, I didn’t vote for Obama (nor for McCain; I wrote in a candidate), but I hoped that at least he would do some good on the two big failures of the Bush administration (for which I twice voted): foreign policy — specifically, dialing back on this willingness to make America the policeman of the world — and financial reform. He’s been a big disappointment, though it must be said that if a Republican president would have been in office, we wouldn’t have gotten even as much as we did. My lack of fear of a second Obama term comes from the thought that on these two big issues — Wall Street and war-making — a Republican president with a Republican Congress would likely be far worse than this mediocrity we now have in the White House.

The one area that I agree Obama ought to be feared is on religious liberty. His administration was on the wrong side of the recent Hosanna Tabor case, in which every member of the Supreme Court, including the liberal justices, ruled for religious liberty, and against the Administration. And now, with last week’s word that the Department of Health and Human Services is going to compel Catholic institutions to pay for employee contraception via insurance, it is clear that Obama is by no means merely a nominal threat to religious freedom. Princeton law professor Robert George nails it:

In every area touching the sanctity of human life and issues of sexual morality, the Obama administration is aggressively prosecuting the agenda its critics predicted and its most ardent left-wing supporters hoped for. Those who are driving the train, including key administration officials who self-identify as members of the Catholic Church, have no regard for the ethical beliefs of Catholics and others when they are in conflict with left-liberal orthodoxy.  Their task, as they perceive it, is to fortify and expand the “right to abortion” and “sexual freedom” wherever they can.  They pursue this agenda with a religious zeal because, in fact, the ideology in which abortion is a “right” and “sexual freedom” is a core value is their religion. These beliefs are integral to their worldview. If, like Kathleen Sebelius, they happen to be Catholics, you can be assured that it won’t be Catholic teaching, or the Judaeo-Christian ethic, that shapes their policies on issues of life and death and marriage and sexual morality; it will be liberal ideology—pure and simple—that does the shaping.

Interestingly, Obama and his people have been willing to break the hearts of those on the left when it comes Guantanamo, rendition, basic procedural rights of detainees and those accused of supporting terrorism, targeted assassinations, drone attacks, and so forth.  But they keep faith strictly with them when it comes to anything pertaining to abortion, contraception, and other central components of the ideology of lifestyle liberalism—the conscience rights of Catholics and others be damned.

Pro-life citizens, including many Catholics, who in 2008 allowed themselves to be persuaded that Obama wouldn’t, as his critics warned, push abortion hard and run roughshod over the religious liberty and rights of conscience of Catholics and other pro-life citizens and their institutions, have now gotten a rude awakening. His administration revealed its contempt for religious freedom and the rights of people and communities of faith when it embraced an extreme and utterly untenable position on the ministerial exemption in the Hosanna-Tabor case.  In case anyone thought that was some sort of isolated mistake, the President’s abortifacient and contraception mandate leaves the matter in no doubt.

The liberal Catholic writer Michael Sean Winters, who blogs for the progressive Catholic newspaper National Catholic Reporter, wrote a stinging rebuke to Obama over this issue. Excerpt:

President Barack Obama lost my vote yesterday when he declined to expand the exceedingly narrow conscience exemptions proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services. The issue of conscience protections is so foundational, I do not see how I ever could, in good conscience, vote for this man again.

More:

I accuse you, Mr. President, of failing to live out the respect for diversity that you so properly and beautifully proclaimed as a cardinal virtue at Notre Dame. Or, are we to believe that diversity is only to be lauded when it advances the interests of those with whom we agree? That’s not diversity. That’s misuse of a noble principle for ignoble ends.

I accuse you, Mr. President, of betraying philosophic liberalism, which began, lest we forget, as a defense of the rights of conscience. As Catholics, we need to be honest and admit that, three hundred years ago, the defense of conscience was not high on the agenda of Holy Mother Church. But, we Catholics learned to embrace the idea that the coercion of conscience is a violation of human dignity. This is a lesson, Mr. President, that you and too many of your fellow liberals have apparently unlearned.

You really should read the whole thing. Again, Winters identifies himself as a liberal Democrat, but he says Obama has pushed him too far with this thing. It is bizarre that Obama would have done this. He defends Guantanamo, he defends abandoning his previously stated views on civil liberties, but on this, on compelling Catholic institutions to violate their institutional consciences to provide contraception coverage in private insurance, Obama is willing to go to the mat?

What is wrong with these people? What is the upside in antagonizing religious voters like this?

I have more or less been thinking that once again, I’m going to sit out a presidential election, but if anything compels me to hold my nose and vote Republican instead of sitting this election out as a disaffected conservative, it will be this issue. It’s not that I agree with the Catholic Church’s position on contraception. It’s that, as Winters writes, the primacy of conscience and religious liberty is so great that as a believer, I am hard-pressed to justify functional neutrality.

Rocco Palmo reports on the Catholic bishops’ response. Excerpt:

The HHS rule requires that sterilization and contraception – including controversial abortifacients – be included among “preventive services” coverage in almost every healthcare plan available to Americans. “The government should not force Americans to act as if pregnancy is a disease to be prevented at all costs,” added Cardinal-designate Dolan.

At issue, the U.S. bishops and other religious leaders insist, is the survival of a cornerstone constitutionally protected freedom that ensures respect for the conscience of Catholics and all other Americans.

“This is nothing less than a direct attack on religion and First Amendment rights,” said Franciscan Sister Jane Marie Klein, chairperson of the board at Franciscan Alliance, Inc., a system of 13 Catholic hospitals. “I have hundreds of employees who will be upset and confused by this edict. I cannot understand it at all.”

Again, this is not fundamentally about contraception and sterilization. I don’t believe what the Catholic Church teaches about these things. That is beside the point. The point is that for Catholics and Catholic institutions, this is a very big issue. Why does the administration insist on forcing itself onto these institutions? It could well be that they know the great majority of Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on contraception, and that, according to one study, up to 48 percent of all Catholic hospitals have performed direct sterilizations, in spite of clear Church teaching against it. The administration is probably gambling that the bishops are paper tigers on this issue, because they don’t have their people behind them.

Well, Team Obama has lost the liberal Catholic Michael Sean Winters, and for reasons that every religious believer and friend of the First Amendment should take seriously. Winters again:

Some commentators, including those in the comment section on my post yesterday, have charged that people like me, Catholics who have been generally supportive of the President, were duped, that we should confess our sins of political apostasy, and go rushing into the arms of a waiting GOP. I respectfully decline the indictment and, even more, the remedy. Nothing that happened yesterday made the contemporary GOP less mean-spirited, or more inclined to support the rights of our immigrant brothers and sisters, or less bellicose in their approach to foreign affairs, or more concerned about the how the government can and should alleviate poverty. … As for myself, I could not, in good conscience, vote for any of the current Republicans seeking the presidency.

But, yesterday, as soon as I learned of this decision, I knew instantly that I also could not, in good conscience, ever vote for Mr. Obama again. …

I have not been one of those Christians who has been quick to credit the hyperbolic meme that the Administration is making “war” on religion. After this, I concede that I was probably wrong. As with the Massachusetts state court ruling several years ago, which compelled Catholic Charities of Boston to get out of the adoption business, we are faced with an elite establishment that seems determined to use legal means to cast out of the public square religious believers who do not accept the sexual autonomy and egalitarianism that is the raison d’etre of the activist core of the modern Democratic Party. Obama will cave, and has caved, on civil liberties, on Wall Street, on any number of issues. But this issue is where he draws his line in the sand. Instructive, that.