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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Divide and Conquer

By Ross Douthat


Catholic Quisling Carol Keehan and Obama
So far as I can tell, the White House’s proposed “compromise” in the contraception-sterilization-plan B-ella controversy asks the parties involved to compromise their reasoning faculties and play a game of “let’s pretend” instead. The revised regulation allows religious institutions to pretend that they aren’t actually purchasing an insurance plan that covers services they find morally objectionable, because their insurance companies will be required to pretend that they’re supplying these services free of charge. But fond illusions about “free” services aside, it’s hard to see how a system in which Catholic hospitals and colleges are required to purchase health insurance for their employees from insurers that are required to cover birth control, sterilizations and the morning- and days-after pills is meaningfully different from the original Health and Human Services mandate. As Yuval Levin writes, ”the choice for religious employers is still between paying an insurer to provide their workers with access to a product that violates their convictions or paying a fine to the government.” The rule has been changed, but the reality remains the same.
 
The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto draws a useful analogy:
 
Obama’s abortifacient shell game reminds us of other work-arounds from religious law, such as Shariah mortgages and the selling of chametz for Passover (see our 2009 discussion for details). But whereas those are accommodations by religious authorities for the convenience of the faithful, the ObamaCare mandate is an imposition by the state.
I would phrase it slightly differently. While the original mandate was just an imposition by the state, the new policy is an accommodation by secular authorities for the convenience of some of the faithful — those believers, in particular, who were offended by the baldness of the White House’s indifference to religious scruples but who broke with the administration more in sorrow than in anger. It’s essentially a salve for the consciences of pro-Obamacare Catholics, as my colleague Laurie Goodstein points out in a perceptive analysis:
For the White House, the decision announced Friday to soften a rule requiring religious-affiliated organizations to pay for insurance plans that offer free birth control was never really driven by a desire to mollify Roman Catholic bishops, who were strongly opposed to the plan.

Rather, the fight was for Sister Carol Keehan — head of an influential Catholic hospital group, who had supported President Obama’s health care law — and Catholic allies of the White House seen as the religious left. Sister Keehan had told the White House that the new rule, part of the health care law, went too far.

“I felt like he had made a really bad decision, and I told him that,” Sister Keehan said of the president. “I told his staff that. I felt like they had made a bad decision on principle, and politically it was a bad decision. For me another key thing was that it had the potential to threaten the future of health reform.”
The original HHS rule almost seemed to have been deliberately written to leave Catholics like Sister Keehan with no alternative but to oppose it, even if doing so put the “the future of health reform” in jeopardy. The new rule, though, is much more savvy: Because it speaks the language of compromise and conscience, it provides grounds for anyone who desperately wants to believe in it to believe in it, even as it leaves the underlying policy more or less unchanged. (It’s telling, in this regard, that the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne managed to write an entire column today defending the compromise without once engaging with its substance.)

And by winning back the Catholics who wanted to be won back, the White House may have successfully defused the immediate crisis that its own ineptness created. Public opinion is highly malleable on this issue, and by dividing his critics, the president has made it more likely that this will be perceived as a left-right struggle on an issue (contraception) where social liberals have the public on its side, rather than a religious liberty issue that had centrist media types tut-tutting and swing-state Democrats jumping ship. (Compare this Kirsten Powers column on the supposed compromise to her take on the mandate last week, for instance, to get a sense of how the media conversation will probably shift.)

So the president has probably won today’s political battle. The question now is whether the Catholic bishops in particular, and religious conservatives in general, have a strategy for the longer war.
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