As expected, the news has filtered out that the Obama administration’s attempt to force Catholic institutions to pay for contraception for their employees despite the teachings of the church is about to be rescinded in a “compromise” which the White House hopes will allow it to save face. After a political firestorm that threatened to engulf his re-election efforts, President Obama seems to have bowed to the inevitable and retreated. The growing consensus across the country that his policy was both an attack on religious freedom and an indication of the messy complications that will ensue from the implementation of Obamacare dictated no other course but retreat.
This will disappoint a liberal base that was delighted at the Democrats’ decision to try to force the church to its knees on a principle where the Vatican’s stand runs counter to the opinions of most people, not to mention the practices of most Catholics. But though it is the height of wisdom to give up on a course that was as foolhardy as this, the president shouldn’t think he will not suffer the consequences of having put forward this ill-considered plan. Even after the initiative is withdrawn or watered down, the damage from this episode cannot be undone. He has not only offended Catholics but in attempting to ram this measure down the throat of the church, he has also reminded the country that his signature health care legislation involves a tyrannical expansion of government power.
The president may have thought this was just a matter of pleasing the left on an issue where few agreed with the church. Indeed, the ban on contraception is one on which the Vatican has few supporters even among the Catholic faithful. But most Americans instinctively understood that no matter what they thought of the merits of contraception bans, government ought not to demand that religious institutions subsidize practices they oppose as a matter of conscience. Government interference in internal church matters in this way is unacceptable, and Obama soon learned his attack on Catholics isolated him just as much as the Pope’s stand on birth control.
But far worse than that is the fact that the whole business is a function of government health care mandates. In a single stroke Obama managed to highlight the least popular measure of his administration and did so in a manner that reinforced all the criticisms that had been made of it. And by giving up so quickly, the president has also confirmed his base’s worst fears about his weak leadership style.
Though he may retract the contraception dictat today, by opening up this can of worms, he has done his administration and his hopes for re-election great harm. His assault on religious freedom has energized social conservatives and Republicans. But it has also given wavering Democrats and independents one more reason to be wary about handing Obama a second term.