Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who is also a prominent GOP strategist, said that for Obama to tie his tax policy to Jesus’s teachings “is theologically threadbare and straining credulity.”
“I felt like it was over the line and not the best use of the forum,” Reed said. “It showed insufficient level of respect for what the office of the president has historically brought to that moment.”
Furor over birth control
Obama has come under fire for his decision last month not to exempt most faith-affliated organizations, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, from a provision in the health-care law that will require employers to cover birth control without out-of-pocket costs as part of new insurance plans for workers. (Churches and other institutions of worship are exempt from the rule.)
The decision is emerging as a campaign issue, and some religious conservatives have used the decision to argue that Obama is hostile to the practice of religion.
Catholics in thousands of parishes heard a letter from their bishops last weekend rallying against the rule, and even some prominent liberal Catholics in recent days called the rule a threat to traditional Catholic practice.
Shaun Casey, a Wesley Theological Seminary professor and evangelical adviser to the Obama campaign in 2008, said the White House is misjudging the political fallout among Catholics, who may see the process as disrespectful.
“This decision has drawn negative reaction from an astonishing breadth of sources. The most troubling is the strong response from people who are usually the president’s allies,” Casey said. “For a White House that prides itself on outreach to faith groups, the apparent breakdown in process is puzzling. I am not sure they understand the size of the political problem they are facing.”
Though studies indicate that a large majority of Catholic women have used contraception, some Obama supporters acknowledged that his decision carried political risks.
“This has nothing at all to do with abortion, but . . . if it is framed that way, voters who tune in quickly could have much more blowback” for the White House, said Eric Sapp, a consultant to Democrats on faith issues.
Emerging campaign issue
Some GOP consultants say their party aims to make this a key campaign issue.
Former candidate Rick Perry has been the most bold, releasing a video vowing to end the “war on religion.”
At a campaign rally this week, Newt Gingrich charged that Obama was “declaring war on the Catholic Church.” Romney, citing the health-care law, used similar language, calling it an “assault.”
Some experts said the controversy could harm the president, particularly in battleground states with sizable white Catholic populations, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Obama carried 54 percent of Catholic support in his 2008 campaign against John McCain, but that support dropped to 47 percent among white Catholics voters and 41 percent among Catholics who regularly attend Mass.
In his remarks Thursday, Obama did not directly join the debate over religious freedom.
But he laid out a simple scriptural grounding for his policies: caring for the least of these, being one’s brother’s keeper, demanding much of those to whom much has been given. He went on at length about a meeting with evangelical icon Billy Graham.
“I have fallen on my knees with great regularity since that moment, asking God for guidance not just in my personal life and my Christian walk, but in the life of this nation,” he told the crowd at the Washington Hilton.
Staff writers Scott Wilson and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.