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Posted at 01:24 AM ET, 02/15/2012

Obama, former religious allies distant

So we finally achieve world domination and a Baptist preacher is the first to call it? “We are all Catholics now,’’ Mike Huckabee told his fellow conservatives at CPAC last Friday.

This may have come as a surprise to those who remember when Huckabee courted John Hagee, the Texas pastor who wrote of “the clear record of history linking Adolf Hitler and the Roman Catholic Church in a conspiracy to exterminate the Jews.’’

The former Arkansas governor isn’t anti-Catholic. He was just running for president at the time and trolling for votes. Same as the current Republican field is now in identifying with swing-voting Catholics and our alleged oppression.

That’s not what you’d call a reach for recent convert Newt Gingrich. Or for Rick Santorum, whose ‘Catholic strategy’ goes back to the cradle. But Mitt Romney, too, continues to contend that the president has declared a “war on Catholics’’ — one front in the larger “war on religion.”

No bullets are flying that I can see; on the contrary, President Obama has acknowledged the importance of religious liberty by walking back a policy that would have forced Catholic institutions to break their own teaching against contraception. (Instead, religious employers won’t have to pay for free birth control through insurance plans, the administration says, though what self-insured religious employers are supposed to do has yet to be worked out.)

Still, the administration has a lot of basic but important repair work to do with the religious leaders and voters who supported the president in 2008.

Mostly, the problems are sins of omission: The faith-based office in the White House has a reputation for failing to return calls and e-mails.

That’s why some at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were irate even before the Jan. 20 decision on the mandate.

“There’s no one there to pick up the bat phone,” one religious leader said. And “there’s a sense the brain-trust in Chicago still doesn’t get it,’’ — the “it” being “what they need to do to bring back the people they’ve systematically alienated over the last three years.”

The Obama campaign hasn’t hired anyone to run religious outreach yet. When the first two people offered the posts of director and assistant director turned them down, it was seen as a worrisome sign that the president’s team hadn’t sold these as serious jobs.

Why aren’t Obama, Vice President Biden, who could be such an asset in this area, and their surrogates out there talking to religious voters about promises kept — on health care, the safety net and winding down our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

For that matter, why hasn’t the vice president pulled aside White House press secretary Jay Carney and informed his former aide that the Catholic bishops were supporting health-care reform before he was born?

At Monday’s White House press briefing, Carney dismissed criticism of the birth-control compromise: “I would simply note with regard to the bishops,’’ he said, “that they never supported health-care reform to begin with.”

And I would simply note that the Catholic hierarchy in this country started pushing for universal coverage in 1919.

In our own day and age, though, are the counselors who led the president astray in the birth control fiasco paying any price for their bad advice? Are faith leaders who helped Obama in ’08 getting any calls asking them how they’ve been?

Here’s the political reason these relationships matter: A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll shows Catholic voters, who decisively supported Obama in the last election, slightly favoring Romney at this point.

A new Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday shows a pretty even split, too, on the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, with 48 percent supporting an exemption for religious employers and 44 percent saying they should have been required to cover contraceptives just like anybody else.

The Republicans are not going to stop talking about the “war on religion” no matter what Obama does. But if he doesn’t make the case for what he’s done right for religious voters, he will have ceded ground he didn’t have to lose.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors ‘She the People.’ Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

By  |  01:24 AM ET, 02/15/2012

Tags:  Catholics, Obama, Mike Huckabee, contraception mandate, contraception compromise, Jay Carney, Joe Biden, Barack Obama

 
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