Conscience Exemptions and the Press

National Catholic Reporter
Distinctly Catholic

21 December, 2011

Reprinted by permission of National Catholic Reporter,
115 E Armour Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111

Michael Sean Winters*

I do not believe the President has any personal hostility to religion generally or to Catholicism specifically. I do think he and most of his advisors come from an intellectual milieu that is only accepting of religion when it adopts the political agenda of the New York Times editorial page.

Some of the remarks in the combox, and conversations at holiday parties, have suggested that virtually no one is going to vote for or against President Obama based on his upcoming decision regarding conscience exemptions for Catholic and other religious organizations from certain mandates under the new health care reform law. This is only half true, and the half that is true is damning. The other half has to do with how our media culture frames issues and how issues and events feed a media narrative.

It is true that very few people who generally support the President’s policies are as riled up about the conscience exemption issue as I am. Frequently, I hear Catholics who have grown suspicious of the hierarchy on other grounds transferring their suspicions to the bishops’ motives on this issue, seeing the entire religious liberty issue as a smokescreen for further aligning the USCCB with the GOP. Yes, there are some bishops who see the Democrats as the “party of death” but it is not the majority of bishops and such extremist sensibilities are voiced not only by the loudest bishops but by the most unhinged. It is another issue, and a very frustrating one, that so few self-described liberals are not more concerned about the issue on LIBERAL grounds. Apart from the casual disregard for the foundational roots of liberalism, you would think that after years of holding up diversity as an important value, the liberal zeitgeist might find room for Catholic institutions to be different.

As I say, however frustrating or not, the assertion is half true that not many voters will change their opinion of the President based on this one decision. But, what about the other half of the proposition that is not true?

The President’s political dilemma is that some have framed the discussion as a debate about contraception not conscience, and polls indicate the overwhelming majority of Catholics do not agree with their bishops about contraception. But, if President Obama decides not to expand the conscience exemption, he will feed the narrative that Democrats are hostile to religion, a narrative that has stalked the Democrats for a long time and one the Obama campaign in 2008 was keen to overcome. I need hardly point out that if President Obama does decide to expand the conscience exemption, there is little possibility that a counter-narrative will emerge that Obama is hostile to women. A few extremist websites and advocacy groups may try to fan those flames but that narrative is a dog that won’t hunt.

The narrative that Obama is hostile to religion has become a staple in certain right wing circles. If you watch Fox News, you would think the fact that the President did not mention the Deity in his Thanksgiving Day remarks was an intentional swipe at religion and the most important story that week. But, the Fox News aficiondos are never going to vote for Obama anyway. His worry, here, is that a series of stories, mostly local in nature, will have the effect of making the “Dems are hostile to religion” meme more plausible to voters who do not watch Fox.

Several Catholic institutions have made it clear that if the conscience exemption is not broadened, they will stop offering health insurance to their employees or, if a college to their students, rather than bow to the pressure to subsidize insurance coverage for procedures they fund morally objectionable. Even someone as generally progressive as Bishop Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida has said as much. If a local diocese or Catholic college or Catholic hospital stops offering its employees insurance, that will be big news in the local press. There will be interviews with employees worrying about what they are going to do. There will be statements from the Catholic institutions saying they were “forced” to do this, that the Obama administration changed the rules of the game and caved to pressure from pro-choice advocates. These stories will not appear all at once. They will not even merit a mention in the New York Times. But, Joe “swing voter,” who reads his local paper the way my Dad reads his local paper – obituaries first, local stories second – will take note and if Joe “swing voter” is already thinking he is unhappy about the economy, but is unenthusiastic about the Republicans, and is looking for something to push him one way or the other, the thought of those nice nurses who helped his wife when she was in Holy Cross Hospital not getting insurance anymore, that may be just the thing to push him from blue to red.

On the other hand, what will be the media coverage of a decision to broaden the exemption? The President will get two or three days of bad press in the Post and the Times. The same people who chastised Obama for his decision not to make Plan B available to 11-year olds will get interviewed for the news pages. The head of Planned Parenthood will write an op-ed. Cong. DeGette will go on the “Rachel Maddow Show.” But, the story has no “legs” if the President insists on maintaining the kinds of exemptions that are currently found in the federal employee benefit package or in the tax code. It is never “news” when nothing changes. Notre Dame will not be forced to endure a story about the first student to use her new contraception coverage or about how its staff is struggling now that they no longer get health insurance through the university. And, while I am sure that some pro-choicers may be less inclined to write a check for the President’s re-election campaign, I doubt they are going to rush to embrace the candidacy of Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.

So, I concede that very few people see this issue as decisive the way I see it as decisive. But, I think the President and his political people need to carefully examine the fallout more broadly, especially how it will play out in the media. I have just gotten up to Connecticut and I can virtually guarantee that if the President expands the exemption, it will not merit a mention, certainly no more than a line or two, in the local newspapers. But, if the staff at our extraordinary Catholic schools can no longer get insurance through their employer, that will be on the front page for weeks with interviews of really upset people. Some of those people will blame the bishops, to be sure. But, some will also blame the President and his health care reform.

I do not believe the President has any personal hostility to religion generally or to Catholicism specifically. I do think he and most of his advisors come from an intellectual milieu that is only accepting of religion when it adopts the political agenda of the New York Times editorial page. We know the President, in his own biography, credits the Catholic Church and her many and varied social service programs for inspiring him early in his career, but he clearly does not see how those social service programs are linked, integrally, to the Church’s pro-life position. I do not fault him for that. In my book Left at the Altar, I detailed the sordid history by which the traditional political allegiance of Catholics with Democrats was rent asunder, all of which came before Obama entered the White House.

But, if the President wants to stay in the White House he needs to think about Catholic swing voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida. They care more about the economy than they do about conscience exemptions to be sure. If the President is lucky, the economy will be murky come November. (If unlucky, the economy will be in the tank and then there is nothing to be done about his re-election prospects.) They will admire him for his decision to go after bin Laden. They likely support the decision to end our involvement in Iraq. But, they will be really upset if their local Catholic college or hospital was forced to stop offering its employees insurance because the government mandated that the institution violate the Church’s moral teachings. Even those who don’t agree with the teaching on contraception are likely to get upset. There is a bullying aspect to a mandate. On the other hand, does anyone think that a card-carrying member of NARAL is going to vote for Romney? C’mon. That is why I think that anyone who says “no one cares about this issue except the bishops” misunderstands how an issue like this can play out. There is no reason for Obama to feed the narrative that the Democrats are hostile to religion. He has every reason to rob his opponents of that charge.

Catholic Pride and Conscience Exemptions

National Catholic Reporter
Distinctly Catholic

1 December, 2011

Reprinted by permission of National Catholic Reporter,
115 E Armour Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111

Michael Sean Winters*

. . . even those Catholics who do not agree with all the Church’s teachings know that the mission of the Church, expressed in educational, medical and social justice organizations, is something integral, something in the DNA of those institutions, and that we don’t want the government mucking around in our Church.

One of the more interesting developments in the debate about whether or not to expand the conscience exemptions regarding mandated insurance coverage for procedures the Catholic Church finds morally objectionable, such as contraception, sterilization and some drugs the Church considers abortifacients, is the fact that so many Catholics who do not share those moral objections are nonetheless vociferous in urging a broader exemption. Friends who denounce the bishops as naïve or willing tools of the GOP, who think that contraception is fine, or who otherwise seldom miss the opportunity to trash the hierarchy, nonetheless find themselves disturbed by the idea that the federal government would force Catholic institutions to abide by rules that conflict with the dictates of the Church.

Some of this concern manifests an understandable awareness that if the government can mandate contraception today, it might mandate abortion coverage tomorrow. Many Catholics who are not morally troubled by contraception remain morally troubled by abortion. Some also perceive the essential religious liberty issues at stake. Unlike those champions of the “wall of separation” like the ACLU, who now can’t climb over that wall fast enough in order to tell Notre Dame or Catholic Charities what insurance plans they must buy, these Catholics recognize that the government should be wary of intruding into the religious sphere.

But, there is a yet deeper issue, and one that I suspect has not occurred to the people at the White House advising the President. It has to do with Catholic pride. There was a time when Catholics had to build their own schools because mainstream schools like Harvard did not welcome Catholics and public schools forced Catholic students to pray with Protestant texts like the King James Bible. The vast array of Catholic social service agencies often began as a ministry to immigrant co-religionists who faced all manner of hostility and little succor from the government. To the great credit of the Church, those ministries continued even when they were no longer primarily serving Catholics.

Those institutions were built by our ancestors, who often had only their pennies to contribute. They are “ours” not only in a legal sense but in a cultural sense. And, Catholics do not take kindly to institutions their forbears built because the mainstream culture would not admit them to their institutions, now being ordered to change their ways by the same people whose forbears kept Catholics out in the first place.

The current episode recalls the 1978 attempt by the IRS to change the rules governing the tax-exempt status of private Christian schools. Many of those schools had been created by southern Protestants in response to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ordered an end to segregation in the public schools. In 1969, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights filed a suit seeking to strip these schools of their tax-exempt status and won. The Nixon administration issued a rule that only required the schools to insert a non-discrimination pledge into their bylaws, but organizations continued to sue. On August 22, 1978, the IRS issued a rule that required the schools to prove they did not discriminate rather than, as previously, forcing the IRS to prove that they did.

The backlash was immediate and intense. Robert Billings, who would become the first executive director of the Moral Majority the following year, launched a campaign to turn back the rule. The IRS received some 126,000 letters of protest. The calls to Congress were so many, they overwhelmed the switchboard. Richard Viguerie, one of the found fathers of the modern religious right, believed that the IRS backlash was decisive in driving conservative evangelical Christians into politics. “It kicked the sleeping dog,” Viguerie said. “It galvanized the religious right.”

It should be noted that by 1978 most private Christian academies had a few black students. But, these church-run schools were predominantly white in part because the churches they attended were predominantly white. It has been well said that Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated of times in American life. Students whose parents belonged to the church might receive discounted tuition, and those students whose parents went elsewhere might not be able to afford the full tuition. In short, you can explain the disproportionate lack of black students at the schools without recognizing explicit racism as the cause. Additionally, by 1978, Christian academies were often founded not to avoid segregation but to avoid sex education in the public schools. Having built these schools to escape what they believed were pernicious secular influences in the public schools, they did not take kindly to an assault on them from the government.

The Obama administration should be very careful in making its decision. Polls may indicate that many Catholics do not agree with the teaching of their bishops about contraception, but those same Catholics will not take kindly to any efforts to tell them how to run their schools, hospitals and social service agencies.

Most of all, Catholics understand that our schools and our hospitals and our social service agencies grow out of our faith. Unlike Luther, we have always put a high value on good works. Catholics take seriously Jesus’ words, found in the 25th Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew – whatever you do for one of these the least of my brethren, you do for me. Catholics grow up learning the corporal works of mercy – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, etc. – and that list is drawn from that same Bible passage. These institutions are expressions of our self-identity as Catholics. And even those Catholics who do not agree with all the Church’s teachings know that the mission of the Church, expressed in educational, medical and social justice organizations, is something integral, something in the DNA of those institutions, and that we don’t want the government mucking around in our Church.

As noted earlier, President Obama is struggling with white, working class voters in Pennsylvania. Many of those voters are Catholics. They care about the economy, to be sure, but that is not the only thing they care about. Picking a fight with Catholics is one thing he should avoid. Pricking their pride is just plain dumb.