Politico's inside story of the White House decision to keep the HHS contraception coverage mandate intact has Barack Obama coming down on the side of the mandate "by personal conviction," making "the passionate case that several million women--many neither Catholic nor rich enough to pay $60 a month for contraception--should have access to free birth control, even while working for church-run institutions." To aides, evidently. Operating in his normal chief executive mode, the president has not seen fit to explain his decision publicly, much less speak passionately on the subject.
But it's worth recalling that he has spoken publicly on it before, in the 2006 Call To Renewal address that remains his manifesto on the role of religion in the public square. And what he had to say then goes some way towards explaining why he has misjudged the issue now.
Even those who claim the Bible's inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing that some passages--the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ's divinity--are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life.
The American people intuitively understand this, which is why the majority of Catholics practice birth control and some of those opposed to gay marriage nevertheless are opposed to a Constitutional amendment to ban it. Religious leadership need not accept such wisdom in counseling their flocks, but they should recognize this wisdom in their politics.
Not so much, I'm afraid. Catholic bishops, joined by some evangelical leaders, are in full attack mode on the mandate, but not necessarily because they don't, in the privacy of their studies, recognize a distinction between revealed truths and culturally specific practices. It's because, in our own cultural moment, claims of religious liberty are increasingly being understood as entitling you to an exemption from secular groundrules. Yes, most Americans think employer health plans should cover contraception, just as they now have narrowly come to favor same-sex marriage. (In just the past year, white Catholics have come to favor it by more than any other major Christian group.) But the importance of granting "conscience clause" exceptions continues to grow.
What's needed is a clear enunciation of the boundaries between policies that promote the public good and the rights of religious organizations to opt out. Religious rights are not absolute. A college does not, for example, get to discriminate religiously on the basis of race and retain its tax deduction. At the same time, there are workarounds--existing in the states and newly proposed--that may safeguard principled positions on both sides. Plainly, however, depending on the "wisdom" of religious leadership to accept the politics of cultural practice isn't cutting it. It's time for one those presidential speeches.
Update: The Administration announces an "accommodation" along the lines of the Hawaii policy, with Obama speaking at 12:15. Basically, contraceptive care will be provided free of charge for those working for religious non-profits, whether their plans cover it or not. In a briefing for reporters, administration officials say the coverage is "cost-neutral," and therefore individuals won't have to pay anything above the cost of the plan to get it. Will the president dilate on the general principles? We'll see.