What’s likely to come next in contraception debate? A culture war.

2008 file photo from an, er, unrelated campaign. (Associated Press)

For a very brief moment on Friday it looked as if the administration’s “accommodation” for the mandate for contraception coverage had taken the heat off the President during this election year.

Obama managed to preserve mandated coverage for contraception (without a co-pay), even for employees at religiously affiliated organizations, by having insurance companies directly contact female employees and provide the coverage free of charge. The outcome has pleased both women’s groups pushing for the coverage and liberal Catholic groups who had initially opposed it. Obama’s critics on the left, who attacked the President for past compromises, believed this one “satisfied all direct parties to the controversy.” Even the U.S. Conference on Bishops initially offered a lukewarm appraisal of the President’s new plan, calling it a “first step in the right direction.”

But that so-called “right direction” was quickly reconsidered as the U.S Conference of Bishops then rejected the President’s accommodation. In Sunday’s Inquirer, Charles J. Chaput, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, called the President’s plan “dangerous and insulting,” adding “no similarly aggressive attack on religious freedom in our country has occurred in recent memory.”

So too have many in the President’s political opposition re-staked their claim against any sort of birth control mandate. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) both voiced immediate opposition to the accommodation, with McConnell supporting legislation introduced by Senator Roy Blount (R., Mo.) that would allow any employer to deny contraception coverage.

My sense is that the Obama administration, emboldened by the positive economic news of late that is bolstering its reelection prospects, welcomes this fight. I wonder if this whole thing wasn’t just a set-up from the very beginning?

By drawing the Republicans and the religious right into a fight, the President’s “accommodation” has accomplished three things:

First, by keeping in place a long-promised priority of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the President continues to consolidate and energize his left-leaning and liberal critics in this election year.

Second, for moderate and independent voters who supported the President in 2008, this issue is also likely a big winner. Recent polling suggests that a majority of Americans generally and Catholics specifically support the mandate.

Third, the President’s accommodation may create a wedge issue inside the GOP. In 2001, for example, Republican moderates Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (both from Maine), co-sponsored a Federal contraception mandate. Do Republicans really believe that a culture war that women, especially, perceive as an attack on their reproductive choices will play well in an election year?

Catholicism’s opposition to contraception, abortion, and women’s control over their reproductive choices is Church teaching and no surprise here. But what I do not understand is why the Church is using inflammatory language painting the President as an anti-religious bigot. Do Catholics really believe, as Archbishop Chaput put it, that President Obama has a “deep distrust of the formative role religious faith has on personal and social conduct, and a deep distaste for religion's moral influence on public affairs”? Is the mandate, in the words of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference, really “an unprecedented threat to religious freedom”?

The Church certainly doesn’t use this kind of inflammatory language when describing Republicans, whose immigration, poverty, and social justice positions are antithetical to the tenets of Catholicism.

In 2006, on the matter of immigration reform, it was then Denver Archbishop Chaput who described the role of the Church in the very impassioned and often-volatile immigration debate:

I think that, right now, the most important thing for us to do as a church is educate our people about the principles underlying public policy and encourage them to be active in talking to their own legislators about doing something to make sure that we handle this problem in a way that respects the dignity of individuals and the common good of our country.

We would all do well to heed those words, no matter the political and moral fight we find ourselves in.

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