Some of the remarks in the combox, and conversations at holiday parties, have suggested that virtually no one is going to vote for or against President Obama based on his upcoming decision regarding conscience exemptions for Catholic and other religious organizations from certain mandates under the new health care reform law. This is only half true, and the half that is true is damning. The other half has to do with how our media culture frames issues and how issues and events feed a media narrative.
It is true that very few people who generally support the President’s policies are as riled up about the conscience exemption issue as I am. Frequently, I hear Catholics who have grown suspicious of the hierarchy on other grounds transferring their suspicions to the bishops’ motives on this issue, seeing the entire religious liberty issue as a smokescreen for further aligning the USCCB with the GOP. Yes, there are some bishops who see the Democrats as the “party of death” but it is not the majority of bishops and such extremist sensibilities are voiced not only by the loudest bishops but by the most unhinged. It is another issue, and a very frustrating one, that so few self-described liberals are not more concerned about the issue on LIBERAL grounds. Apart from the casual disregard for the foundational roots of liberalism, you would think that after years of holding up diversity as an important value, the liberal zeitgeist might find room for Catholic institutions to be different.
As I say, however frustrating or not, the assertion is half true that not many voters will change their opinion of the President based on this one decision. But, what about the other half of the proposition that is not true?
The President’s political dilemma is that some have framed the discussion as a debate about contraception not conscience, and polls indicate the overwhelming majority of Catholics do not agree with their bishops about contraception. But, if President Obama decides not to expand the conscience exemption, he will feed the narrative that Democrats are hostile to religion, a narrative that has stalked the Democrats for a long time and one the Obama campaign in 2008 was keen to overcome. I need hardly point out that if President Obama does decide to expand the conscience exemption, there is little possibility that a counter-narrative will emerge that Obama is hostile to women. A few extremist websites and advocacy groups may try to fan those flames but that narrative is a dog that won’t hunt.
The narrative that Obama is hostile to religion has become a staple in certain right wing circles. If you watch Fox News, you would think the fact that the President did not mention the Deity in his Thanksgiving Day remarks was an intentional swipe at religion and the most important story that week. But, the Fox News aficiondos are never going to vote for Obama anyway. His worry, here, is that a series of stories, mostly local in nature, will have the effect of making the “Dems are hostile to religion” meme more plausible to voters who do not watch Fox.
Several Catholic institutions have made it clear that if the conscience exemption is not broadened, they will stop offering health insurance to their employees or, if a college to their students, rather than bow to the pressure to subsidize insurance coverage for procedures they fund morally objectionable. Even someone as generally progressive as Bishop Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida has said as much. If a local diocese or Catholic college or Catholic hospital stops offering its employees insurance, that will be big news in the local press. There will be interviews with employees worrying about what they are going to do. There will be statements from the Catholic institutions saying they were “forced” to do this, that the Obama administration changed the rules of the game and caved to pressure from pro-choice advocates. These stories will not appear all at once. They will not even merit a mention in the New York Times. But, Joe “swing voter,” who reads his local paper the way my Dad reads his local paper – obituaries first, local stories second - will take note and if Joe “swing voter” is already thinking he is unhappy about the economy, but is unenthusiastic about the Republicans, and is looking for something to push him one way or the other, the thought of those nice nurses who helped his wife when she was in Holy Cross Hospital not getting insurance anymore, that may be just the thing to push him from blue to red.
On the other hand, what will be the media coverage of a decision to broaden the exemption? The President will get two or three days of bad press in the Post and the Times. The same people who chastised Obama for his decision not to make Plan B available to 11-year olds will get interviewed for the news pages. The head of Planned Parenthood will write an op-ed. Cong. DeGette will go on the “Rachel Maddow Show.” But, the story has no “legs” if the President insists on maintaining the kinds of exemptions that are currently found in the federal employee benefit package or in the tax code. It is never “news” when nothing changes. Notre Dame will not be forced to endure a story about the first student to use her new contraception coverage or about how its staff is struggling now that they no longer get health insurance through the university. And, while I am sure that some pro-choicers may be less inclined to write a check for the President’s re-election campaign, I doubt they are going to rush to embrace the candidacy of Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.
So, I concede that very few people see this issue as decisive the way I see it as decisive. But, I think the President and his political people need to carefully examine the fallout more broadly, especially how it will play out in the media. I have just gotten up to Connecticut and I can virtually guarantee that if the President expands the exemption, it will not merit a mention, certainly no more than a line or two, in the local newspapers. But, if the staff at our extraordinary Catholic schools can no longer get insurance through their employer, that will be on the front page for weeks with interviews of really upset people. Some of those people will blame the bishops, to be sure. But, some will also blame the President and his health care reform.
I do not believe the President has any personal hostility to religion generally or to Catholicism specifically. I do think he and most of his advisors come from an intellectual milieu that is only accepting of religion when it adopts the political agenda of the New York Times editorial page. We know the President, in his own biography, credits the Catholic Church and her many and varied social service programs for inspiring him early in his career, but he clearly does not see how those social service programs are linked, integrally, to the Church’s pro-life position. I do not fault him for that. In my book Left at the Altar, I detailed the sordid history by which the traditional political allegiance of Catholics with Democrats was rent asunder, all of which came before Obama entered the White House.
But, if the President wants to stay in the White House he needs to think about Catholic swing voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida. They care more about the economy than they do about conscience exemptions to be sure. If the President is lucky, the economy will be murky come November. (If unlucky, the economy will be in the tank and then there is nothing to be done about his re-election prospects.) They will admire him for his decision to go after bin Laden. They likely support the decision to end our involvement in Iraq. But, they will be really upset if their local Catholic college or hospital was forced to stop offering its employees insurance because the government mandated that the institution violate the Church’s moral teachings. Even those who don’t agree with the teaching on contraception are likely to get upset. There is a bullying aspect to a mandate. On the other hand, does anyone think that a card-carrying member of NARAL is going to vote for Romney? C’mon. That is why I think that anyone who says “no one cares about this issue except the bishops” misunderstands how an issue like this can play out. There is no reason for Obama to feed the narrative that the Democrats are hostile to religion. He has every reason to rob his opponents of that charge.