President Obama quoted C.S. Lewis on Thursday morning, and normally that would have made my day. The president is good at talking about his Christian faith, as he did at a National Prayer Breakfast, and ought to do more of it if he wants to relieve Americans of some of their most basic misconceptions about him.
But more than I want to hear him tell how the Rev. T.D. Jakes drops by the Oval now and again, I want to know why he repaid Sister Carol Keehan, who carried health-care reform around on her back for him, with a betrayal that could lose him the Catholic vote and his reelection bid.
If that’s what happens, he’ll have no one to blame but himself, after a recent edict by his Health and Human Service Department effectively denied conscience protections to church-run schools, hospitals and social service agencies, which under his Affordable Care Act must provide free contraception to employees, in violation of church teaching.
To review, there would be no Affordable Care Act without Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association, who incurred the wrath of the bishops for standing up for the legislation, and for the truth that there isn’t any abortion funding in it.
There would be no Affordable Care Act if not for Democratic abortion foes in the House, notably Bart Stupak (Mich.), who for his trouble was reviled by his fellow party members, accosted by critics in airports and sent at least one death threat. He also lost his job over it, deciding to retire after the fight, at the end of his term.
So, too, will there be no Affordable Care Act if Catholics swing the other way in the fall.
President Romney won’t be forcing nuns to dole out free diaphragms in violation of their religious freedom and the Constitution that guarantees it.
In fact, under him there won’t be any health-care reform at all. (Yes, I refuse to call that reform the O-word, although I might change my mind if the president doesn’t make it up to Sister Carol).
Newt Gingrich often says that Obama has “declared war on the Catholic Church.” Mitt Romney, too, talks about the president’s “assault on religion.’’ But the worst part is that they aren’t making this up.
Before Jan. 20, that sort of talk struck me as a close cousin of the imagined “war on Christmas,” a holiday that, last I checked, we celebrate from Halloween through the Epiphany.
But now the Obama administration has handed his critics an example of an action that fits nicely with the narrative that he’s a secularist who looks down on believers.
I wasn’t going to write about this, because E.J. Dionne and Michael Gerson have laid out many of the problems already — and when those two gentlemen agree, doesn’t that give the White House just a little pause?
Yet here we are, two weeks after the ruling, and I see no dawning appreciation that it’s time to respond any more meaningfully than this:
The White House posted a blog item on its Web site that answers the criticism by pointing out that “churches are exempt.” Yes, but church-run schools, hospitals and social service agencies are not. And that’s where the feed-the-hungry work goes on. As Obama so aptly noted at the prayer breakfast, that work is precisely what Jesus called us to do, time after time, in the Gospels.
(The coup de grace, though, is that only outfits that serve their own kind are exempt from the requirement. As retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington has asked, are workers in soup kitchens supposed to start asking not “Are you hungry?” but “Are you Catholic?”)
The White House Web site also notes that “no one will be forced to buy or use birth control.” No, just to give it away, as part of employee health packages.
It notes, too, that “contraception is used by most women,” Catholics included. Again, true but not remotely the issue, which is the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Catholic swing voters turned out for Obama in 2008, favoring him 54 percent to 45 percent over Republican John McCain. But they may not do that again in November after last Sunday, when New York Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan — who met with Obama in November and was assured that the president appreciated the importance of conscience protections — joined archbishops all over the land in having letters denouncing the Obama administration decision read at Sunday Mass.
I do not agree with my colleague Michael Gerson that the decision is a “transparently anti-Catholic maneuver” or a radical power-grab, “delivered with a sneer.” But Sister Carol deserves better. And if she doesn’t get it, those will have been some mighty high-priced condoms.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors ‘She the People.’ Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.