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Contraception and religious liberty: a debate liberals don’t want to have

Liberals who support the Obama administration’s rule that requires insurance plans operated by Catholic-affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals, to offer contraception generally think that the criticisms raised by Catholic bishops, Republican politicians and other are driven by narrow political concerns, rather than the principle of religious freedom. They are right in one sense: there has been a good dose of politics injected, and some hypocrisy too, in the conservative opponents’ response. But that does not mean that there isn’t a legitimate underlying issue of religious freedom at stake.

After a week of protests, President Obama backtracked somewhat on the birth control rule, and on Friday announced a get-out clause. If a religious-affiliated institution does not want to include contraceptives in its health plan, it can now shift the cost of those contraceptives on to the health insurers themselves.

This compromise seemed to mollify many groups, in particular liberal Catholics. But Catholic bishops rejected it, and others saw it as a “scam” or “fig leaf”. And some appeared to double-down on their opposition. Republican Senator Marco Rubio has introduced a bill that would allow any employer to raise a religious objection and refuse to cover birth control, and many leading Republicans support it.

Before Obama’s compromise move, many liberals framed the issue as one of women’s civil rights rather than religious liberty. Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said: “We stand here ready to oppose any attack against women’s rights and women’s health.” Some said the real object of opposition was “Obamacare” itself, not the birth control feature. Some liberals contended that conservatives were getting worked up about something that has already existed and was accepted before.  Prior to Obama's federal rule, 28 of the 50 states already required most religious employers to cover prescription contraceptives, and many Catholic hospitals and universities complied. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York has been one of the most outspoken bishops against the rule, but in his own backyard, the Catholic Manhattan and Fordham colleges have plans that cover birth control.

Now many liberals argue the conservatives’ intransigent response to the compromise reveals that their opposition had nothing to do with religious freedom principles at all, but was driven by conservative social policy concerns and the attempt to gain narrow party-political advantage. As a New York Times editorial put it: “Those still angry about the mandate aren’t really concerned about religious freedom; they simply don’t like birth control and want to reduce access to it.” TV host Rachel Maddow wrote in the Washington Post that “the right has picked a fight on this issue because religiosity is a convenient partisan cudgel to use against Democrats in an election year.”

Many of the liberal criticisms ring true. But it is erroneous for them to present the issue as an either-or one between religious liberty and party politics. In fact, both are in play: there is indeed an underlying issue of religious freedom, which some on the right have tried to use it to their political advantage. Liberals are wrong to point to conservatives’ hyperventilated rhetoric as sufficient reason to dismiss any claims that religious liberty is being denied.

As it happens, liberals’ dismissive reaction to claims of anti-religious bias is what has made this issue controversial in the first place, and why even those who support women’s rights have disagreed with the Obama administration’s approach. The real point is this: the liberal response seems to confirm people’s suspicions and worries about the broader liberal approach to politics and society today. Even now, as the debate has continued on, many liberals fail to see this, and want to push the issue back in a safe box where they are most comfortable: “here go the backward right-wingers again, trying to ban birth control”.

There are two aspects in particular that are overlooked by liberals in this debate.

First, the Obama administration’s birth control coverage rule appears to confirm the growing view that liberals do not regard freedom as a principle to be upheld and fought for. Indeed, they generally treat as claims of freedom as either a smokescreen, or the basis for pursuing selfish ends. Where once freedom was understood as an essential liberal or left objective, it is now seen as a right-wing fig leaf. Moreover, it appears to confirm the impression that if liberals believe that their favored social policy measures are the appropriate ones, they are willing to trample over the rights of others who disagree. As liberal pundit Nicholas Kristof puts it, “we try to respect religious beliefs and accommodate them where we can”. Of course, religious freedom is not absolute in civil society, but Kristof’s position is so condescending (“we try to respect…”), and it essentially amounts to government having recognize religious freedom only when it is convenient for government to do so.

Second, the Obama contraception rule also appears to confirm that liberal-led government is uncomfortable with institutions, like the Catholic-affiliated ones, that are not fully government-controlled. Increasingly government - via state bodies or non-government ones that are highly regulated - has a direct connection with the mass of people. The rule on contraception seemed to be an example of government putting an intermediary institution in its place, having it come under the government’s thumb. Over time, government institutions are crowding out and eliminating non-government civil institutions, ones that might have more fluid and spontaneous interactions among people.

This debate over contraception has many shades of gray, and the fact that it has been elevated to a major issue of party-politics in an election year does not help the cause of clarity. There is a reasonable argument to be had about the relative responsibilities and rights of religious institutions and government. But the most striking thing is how so many liberals want to shut down that debate, and reject claims to religious liberty as a distraction. Even if you believe that government has the right, in a government-regulated employer-based health system, to set birth control coverage rules, it is important to comprehend the bigger picture: many people have responded negatively to the government’s rule and it see it as over-reaching because it would not be the first time that liberal policy was imposed from above.

Obama recognized that this issue was becoming highly problematic for him, and that is why he quickly backtracked last week. It is not so much that he was worried that he was losing some of his liberal Catholic supporters, as the Times argued. There was a broader issue at stake: Obama and the Democrats were at risk of becoming backed into a traditional “culture war” corner. Their side in the culture war is elitist and patronizing towards the masses (think of Obama’s description of “bitter” voters who “cling to guns or religion” in the 2008 election), and is ultimately a losing one politically. Obama has spoken many times about wanting to end that impression of Democrats (including his deep regrets about the “bitter” comments), and it seems he recognized that was at stake here.

Some liberals have taken a hard line and see Obama’s compromise approach as an unnecessary concession, a sign of weakness that has only emboldened conservatives. But this whole discussion shows that they are blind to how much distrust their top-down, freedom-overriding and snobbish politics have created among the public at large. Fair or not, any move like the birth control rule was bound to be viewed through that prism of distrust.

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