Sean Hannity calls Barack Obama “The Chosen One.” As it turns out, it’s the perfect characterization.
The current president of the United States is a uniter. He is a healer. I would even go so far as to suggest that he might be a miracle worker. Witness that he got George Weigel, John Paul II’s biographer and a conservative, and E. J. Dionne, a progressive Washington Post columnist, to sit side by side on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown a week ago and agree on something: Both protested the Obama administration’s mandate that Catholic organizations purchase and offer to their employees health-insurance plans that violate their consciences. Later last week, Hardball host Chris Matthews, normally a reliable Obama-booster, rhetorically knocked a reporter’s White House talking point out of his hands in frustration. And ABC’s Jake Tapper has reported that, even within the administration, Catholic aides have argued against the mandate, not just for political reasons but as a matter of policy.
#ad#The administration’s overreach has backfired politically. And it has been tremendously instructive.
Even with Friday afternoon’s phony compromise — saying that Catholic employers don’t have to provide contraception coverage, but that the insurance companies that serve them do — this fight has shown us the radicalism of some in the administration, led by the president and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and urged on by Planned Parenthood and other abortion advocates. They consider birth control to be a basic health need and pregnancy a disease that needs to be managed, suppressed, and often terminated.
But this fight is not, and has not been, primarily about contraception. It’s about religious liberty. It is about the federal government taking it upon itself to determine what is and what is not an acceptable religious belief. Some public conversations in recent weeks have highlighted this: Many observers have expressed the hope that, as a result of the chipping away at the freedom of religion, what they consider the Catholic Church’s antiquated teachings on sexual morality will have to be brought up to date.
Something else has become clear: Most Americans believe that religion is a good thing, just as our Founders did. And we don’t want the government to infringe upon our practice of it.
As Carl Anderson put it in his 2010 book, Beyond a House Divided: “On basic moral questions, on what they believe at their core, most Americans stand shoulder to shoulder. They agree that morality has a place not only in our families and personal relationships but also in corporate offices and boardrooms on Wall Street, in the country’s newsrooms, and in the halls of political power in Washington.”
Anderson offers extensive polling to make the case not only that we believe religion is a good thing, but that a majority of Americans agree with the Catholic Church more often than not. As he told me at the time his book was published, “the polling we have done . . . shows alignment on issue after issue between the Catholic Church’s position and the values of the American people. Like the Catholic Church, Americans think we need a fair immigration solution; they want abortion laws that protect mother and child alike; they have an awareness that, in the long run, abortion hurts women, something the Catholic Church has been saying for years. And, like the Catholic Church, Americans see marriage as undervalued. They believe in God, practice their faith in numbers very high for the industrialized world, and believe in a consistent set of ethics at work and at home. They want to hear from religious leaders on moral issues, and they don’t want religion banned from the public square. It is clear that the message of the Catholic Church has a receptive audience among the American people. And I would add that this is not exclusive to the Catholic Church.”
#ad#A candidate of any faith who understands this can craft a winning message this fall — a forward-looking vision that preserves that which has served us well and made us a beacon throughout the world to dissidents seeking to live in truth.
The overreach represents a turning point, a milestone marking the end of the John F. Kennedy era. There is a visible backlash against the compartmentalization of religion to nothing but a private matter, separate from policy and politics. In his famous 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Senator Kennedy insisted on “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Trying to make clear that, as a Catholic, he was not an integrated whole, he said he believed that a president’s religious views should be “his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”
Both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have taken issue with the Kennedy model. In a 2007 “Faith in America” speech, Romney said: “The notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”
In a speech marking the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s moment, Santorum said: “Our country hadn’t always lived up to that ideal — in particular with respect to Jews and Catholics, thus the legitimate reason for Kennedy’s speech. But what JFK advocated sounded more like Atatürk than Madison — that religious ideas and actors were not welcome in public-policy debates.”
Santorum also pointed out something Kennedy had right: JFK said, “If I face a conflict between my conscience and my public duty, I will resign.” How far we have come since then. In Obama’s administration there were no resignations in protest when the White House calmly announced a federal mandate that some of us violate our consciences.
With the Friday faux compromise — which Dionne and Matthews, among many others, bought as a brilliant solution — the president has put back together some of the coalition that gave us Obamacare. But he has not fixed his problem. This will be a fundamental election issue, because it is so much more than an election issue. There is an “author of liberty,” as Mitt Romney put it in a speech in 2007. And it is not Barack Obama.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.