Here are five reasons that may help explain the political dynamic the president is facing:
1. It’s about religious freedom, not birth control
U.S. Catholic bishops, who led the battle against the Health and Human Services Department mandate, know that they long ago lost their own flock on the contraception issue — 98 percent of Catholics use birth control, according to surveys.
So they have carefully reframed the issue as a fight for religious freedom — an effort to keep the government from forcing the Catholic Church and other religious groups to subsidize something that goes against their teachings. That makes it a violation of conscience, a sacred principle that transcends any specific tenet of faith.
That argument also lends itself to the kind of heated rhetoric that plays well in today’s supercharged political atmosphere. For example, bishops and their allies are accusing the president of “anti-Catholicism” and worse: “The Obama administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, ‘To hell with you!’” Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said after the HHS regulations were announced.
The bishops don’t have as much credibility with the laity as they used to, thanks to the clergy sex abuse scandal, among other things. But Catholics are still a potent tribe, and if outsiders are seen as attacking the church, Catholics can get defensive — and they can get even.
2. Obama has lost even the support of his liberal Catholic allies
Case in point: the HHS mandate has been opposed by liberal and centrist Catholics who have supported the administration on a range of other issues — including the Catholic Health Association and the NETWORK social justice lobby — and even went to bat to help pass health care reform despite threats from the bishops.
The president “utterly botched” the religious exemptions issue, wrote Washington Post columnist and liberal Catholic E.J. Dionne, and “Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.”
“J’accuse!” Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the liberal National Catholic Reporter, wrote in a florid column that channeled Emile Zola’s famous 1898 letter accusing the French government of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair. “The issue of conscience protections is so foundational, I do not see how I ever could, in good conscience, vote for this man again.”
3. It’s not just Catholics
Even though evangelicals and other conservative Protestants generally don’t have religious objections to contraception, they do have a big problem with “big government” and with perceived infringements on religious freedom.
Evangelicals — both their leaders and their troops — have never been big Barack Obama supporters anyway, so they were happy to provide any electoral and rhetorical muscle the Catholic hierarchy could not muster.