Obama’s Compromise: Something for Everyone?

Here’s an old joke: Sometime in the 1930s, one Jew spots another Jew scanning an issue of Der Stürmer, the Nazi party’s official newspaper. He asks, “How come you’re reading that trash?” “Well,” says his friend, “all the Jewish papers talk about is how we’re being beaten up and oppressed. This one says we control the world. I guess I just needed a pick-me-up.”

Barely a day after the White House announced its revision of the guidelines ensuring free contraception for employees of religious institutions, both sides are looking for that pick-me-up. The New York Times credits “Catholic Democrats, liberal columnists and left-leaning religious leaders” with bending the will of the administration. According to the Times, protests from these former supporters forced a “fed-up Mr. Obama” to announce that “time was up,” and order the rules re-written. The story carries quotes from administration officials — “we were getting killed,” “all hell broke lose” — attesting to the Church’s power to induce shell shock.

This image of Obama, yielding to pressure from Planned Parenthood on one hand and time on the other, and allowing Kathleen Sebelius to roll out a political disaster, doesn’t do much to inspire confidence. In Slate, Amanda Marcotte offers an antidote in the form of a counter-narrative. “Obama,” she writes, “just pulled a fast one on Republicans.” The initial guidelines were just a feint that succeeded in provoking a “frenzy of anti-contraception rhetoric, all thinly disguised as concern for religious liberty.” Since the revisions “addressed their purported concerns,” Republicans “can either drop this and slink away knowing they’ve been punked, or they can double down” by condemning contraception openly.

Marcotte’s saying, in other words, that Obama won the same strategic and moral victory on birth control that he won over his birth certificate. In both cases, he spared a respectful nod for the rednecks a moment after they ran off the nearest cliff.

Both views have their merit. For better or worse, this is one of those controversies that offers something for everybody. Marcotte is correct that — as I observed Thursday — it’s given a soapbox to anti-contraception polemicists. If the Church is so dead-set against contraception that she’s willing to buck a socially just policy during an election year, her mouthpieces have to say why. But what Marcotte never figures on is how pundits are couching their arguments in terms relevant to people uninterested in the niceties of Catholic moral theology. Sick of gay marriage? Divorce? Ambiguous role expectations for the genders? Kim Kardashian? Kourtney Kardashian? There’s your culprit — the man in the latex hat! If sweeping solutions for complex problems held no appeal, our War on Terror wouldn’t be global.

Marcotte also underestimates Republicans’ ability to spin the issue exactly how they want to spin it. To a party that’s hung its hat on fears of European-style socialism — if not Stalinism or fascism — the very fact that Obama ever suggested any curtailment of religious liberty offers a large and solid hook. At the CPAC conference, Mike Huckabee said, of the president: “You have done more than any person in the entire GOP field, [than] any candidate has done, to bring this party to unity and energize this party as a result of your attack on religious liberty.” Far from a John Galt wannabe, Huckabee is the Republican Ann Coulter called “the one true Christian liberal” in America. If he says the party’s found a unifying issue, it has.

But even if the president’s initial move was a bad one, and his subsequent correction fearful, he could still realize some benefits — at least where Catholic voters are concerned. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, no stranger to Tea Party-style rhetoric, has conceded that he revised guidelines represent “an openness to respond to some of our concerns” on the executive branch’s part. In a briefing circulated among the bishops, Dolan (along with Bps. William Lori and Stephen Blaire, and Cardinals Daniel DiNardo and Donald Wuerl) outlines problem areas in very precise language. The signatories are unhappy with the administration’s narrow definition of “religious institution,” for example. They are unconvinced that the costs of covering contraceptives will not, ultimately, fall to religious employers. This is not zealotry; this is not culture war. This is talking turkey at a dull roar.

Some of the other objections raised in the document — particularly the question of how an employer that is also an insurer can avoid offering “the objectionable coverage” — won’t be easy to overcome. Nevertheless, the brief uses the word “dialogue” for the exchanges the Obama administration expects to have with the bishops. In Catholic usage, dialogue is a non-adversarial practice — one meant, in fact, to stymie the construction of barricades.

In 2009, not long after Bishop John D’Arcy of Ft. Wayne-South Bend boycotted Notre Dame’s graduation ceremonies to protest Obama’s receipt of an honorary degree, Pope Benedict met with the president. Obama pledged to reduce the number of abortions in America; Benedict presented him with a copy of Dignitas Personae. It was at least the beginning of a dialogue, and it put a sliver of daylight between Obama and his harshest critics.

So far we’ve got energized and united Republicans, and a (perhaps grudgingly) legitimized Democrat. That leaves swing voters; what’s this business offer them? Maybe nothing. Questions of contraception and consicence aside, this upcoming contest may finally boil down to the economy, stupid.

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