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At CPAC, candidates decry President Obama's 'war on religion'

February 11, 2012|By David Horsey

President Obama is trying to accommodate Catholic bishops on birth control, but at CPAC, Republican presidential candidates still ranted about his assault on religion.

At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on Friday, Newt Gingrich warned that Obama would “declare war” on the Catholic Church if he were reelected.

Mitt Romney, who in recent days has been decrying Obama’s “war on religion,” pledged that he would “reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent human life in this country.”

Rick Santorum said the proposed mandate requiring all employers, including religious organizations, to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives is the kind of coercion that threatens religious freedom. Santorum’s remarks were restrained compared to what he had to say at a gathering in Texas on Wednesday. There, he accused progressives of trying to “oppress people of faith.” 

“They are taking faith and crushing it.,” he said. “Why? Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is the government that gives you rights, what’s left are no unalienable rights, what’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left in France became the guillotine. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re a long way from that, but if we follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road.”

Yikes. 

The alarmist histrionics of these men who would be president are now so routine that reporters covering the campaign stifle yawns when the red-meat rhetoric kicks in. Average voters who are just now tuning into the campaign may react differently. Newt Gingrich told CPAC that conservatives know the real Obama “and we should make sure the country knows who he really is.” More likely, most Americans, who have a pretty good sense of who Obama is, are starting to wonder if the Republican candidates actually believe the wild things they are saying about the president. 

On the birth control mandate, the candidates look a lot more like political opportunists reaching for a new means of attack than honest defenders of religious freedom.

It is a now-well-known fact that 28 states already have laws guaranteeing employer-provided coverage for birth control. The rules vary from state to state, but, one way or another, women who work for Catholic hospitals, universities and other church-run services in those states must be provided insurance that gives them access to contraceptives if they so choose. It’s a pretty straightforward issue of labor law that, despite the ire and bombast, has not caused church walls to crumble or priests to be sent to the chopping block.

The Obama administration goofed up by failing to anticipate the harsh reaction of the Catholic hierarchy to the new federal rule. After all, it would spread the mandate to all 50 states with exemptions drawn more narrowly than in many of the current state statutes. The president is moving quickly to remedy the misstep by putting the onus on the insurance companies to pay for birth control on any policy. That should put enough distance in the deal between the employer and the employee to mollify the bishops. 

The Catholic Church has survived for centuries by making such face-saving deals with governments. As long as the principle of church opposition to birth control can be maintained, the fact that women employed by Catholic organizations will be able to get contraceptives by slightly different means will be overlooked. After all, the church fathers are already living with the reality that nearly all American Catholic women – with the notable exception of Rick Santorum’s wife – ignore Vatican teachings and use birth control. So, the church will move on. Church doors will still be open on Sundays and church hospitals, universities and social services will still be in business. But don’t expect conservatives to let this issue go as easily.

The excesses of right-wing talk radio have infected Republican campaign tactics and rhetoric. At gatherings like CPAC, apocalyptic talk is expected, even demanded. For conservatives, it is not enough to say the Obama administration was insensitive to church concerns, it must be called a war on religion. There is a risk in doing this, of course. Democrats can play that game as well, and are already doing so by slamming Republicans for trying to drag women back to the days before the Pill.

Religion has a pretty big constituency in these United States, but contraceptives may have a bigger one.

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