How State Beat Church

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Sullivan

Conservatives gleefully revived the culture wars. But they're not winning. How Obama set a trap for the right.

Perhaps some helpful soul could inform the Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh, who last week calmly explained that "the Obama administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, 'To hell with you!'" A quiet word in the ear of the dogged opponent of gay marriage Maggie Gallagher might have helped too. Just after Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California, was struck down by a court on narrow grounds, she titled a blog post: "Ninth Circuit to 7 Million California Voters: You Are Irrational Bigots."

Not to be outdone, newly insurgent presidential candidate Rick Santorum described a secular society not based on religious principles as a renewal of the French Revolution and "the guillotine." Evangelical voters lined up in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado to vault him back into the front of the race. And when the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation withdrew support from Planned Parenthood, the reaction from the other side was almost as ferocious. "You don't make good on a 'promise' to your dead sister by selling out women who need you most," wrote Mary Elizabeth Williams on Salon. When Komen reversed its decision, the pro-life Republican who had been behind it, Karen Handel, resigned, complaining to Fox News about "the level of vicious attacks and coercion ... by Planned Parenthood. It's simply outrageous."

Who knew the sexual and religious politics of the 1990s were suddenly back, under the president who promised he'd try to end them? And who knew the president himself--who has made an elegant art form out of avoiding exactly these kinds of controversies in his first three years--would have made the final call on the one that suddenly united the entire Republican right in roiling rage? That decision was the now-infamous one to propose a new rule to mandate coverage of contraception, sterilization, and morning-after pills in all health-insurance plans, exempting purely religious institutions, but including Catholic-run hospitals, colleges, and charities who serve the general public and employ many non-Catholics. This, House Speaker John Boehner declared, was an unprecedented assault on the First Amendment by a president who Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently said was "at war against organized religion."

Pouring more gasoline on the rhetorical fire, evangelical leader Chuck Colson compared opposing the Obama administration's contraception rule to Catholic religious resistance to the Nazis. The next week, for good measure, President Obama was conspicuously seen going to church. And at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama himself defended a fairer tax code as an explicitly religious issue for him: "If I'm willing to give something up as somebody who's been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that's going to make economic sense," he said. "But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus' teaching that 'for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.'"

Suddenly no-drama Obama was neck deep in the kind of religious warfare he vowed to avoid. Many pundits--led by older white Catholic men, such as Joe Scarborough and my friend Chris Matthews and even the fair-minded liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne--declared his decision on contraception as not only morally wrong but a politically disastrous violation of religious freedom. Suddenly the specter of 2004--when the culture-war issue of same-sex marriage gave Ohio and the entire election to George W. Bush--reemerged, and some conservative Catholic Democrats began to panic. Within the administration, almost all the white Catholic men opposed the decision--from Bill Daley to Leon Panetta. But critically, the support for the decision came from women, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and key adviser Valerie Jarrett chief among them. …