On Monday, 43 Catholic institutions filed lawsuits against the White House in protest at its contraception mandate. The culture war just got hotter, and we just moved a few steps closer to Obama’s eventual defeat.
The election experts will continue to insist that mandating Catholic employers to provide contraception in their workers’ insurance plans is an overall win for the Prez. After all, even Roman Catholics repeatedly tell pollsters that they see nothing wrong with contraception. The world has moved on from the 1950s when most people’s idea of contraception was a cold shower and a rosary, and the conservative Catholic opposition to the mandate is hopelessly marginal. Even a few nuns have reconciled themselves to it.
But life is more complicated than a snapshot poll can ever show. The pollsters make three mistakes. First, they presume that people are telling the truth. The fact that voters regularly say that they back gay marriage yet always vote it down in popular referenda proves that many don’t like owning up to their own prejudices over the telephone. Second, while the headline figures in these polls show majority support for the equal availability of contraception, other findings within the same reports sometimes articulate unease about compelling Catholic organisations to provide it (in this poll, Catholics voice support for exemptions for religious institutions). There’s an obvious difference between personally thinking contraception is okay but not wanting to see others forced to share your view. No one would mandate a kosher kitchen to serve up pork, no matter how good it might taste.
Third, and most importantly, pollsters and pundits all too often conflate religious and non-religious Catholics when judging the electoral salience of an issue. This is a mistake Andrew Sullivan makes all the time – defining the Catholic Church by all the people who happen to tick “Catholic” on the national census. Following the great declension in Catholic life post-Vatican II, it no longer works that way. You have religious Catholics who go to Church weekly and whose politics are typically shaped by their faith. Then you have the ethnic Catholics who go to Church once after they’re born and once after they die … and that’s it. The latter group isn’t bothered by Obama’s contraception mandate because they aren’t particularly bothered by Catholicism. They’re about as Catholic as Obama is a Kenyan.
In the last couple of decades, the ethnics have pretty slavishly voted Democrat. It’s the religious Catholics who are the electoral swingers – going for George W Bush in 2004 (probably because of marriage and abortion) and returning to Obama and the Democrats in 2008. The religious types listen to all the angry sermons and read the letters from the Bishops that are handed out after Mass. So what are they going to discover when they digest what the Church authorities have to say this week? The Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, puts the Church’s view thusly: “We have tried negotiation with the Administration and legislation with the Congress – and we’ll keep at it – but there’s still no fix. Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now.” The language of rights is crucial. Again, many liberal observers presume that the world shares their view that access to contraception is not only a no-brainer but a human right. Yet there are many voters out there who think that sexual and religious liberties need to be in better balance. It’s the right of intellectual dissent that is threatened by Obamacare.