President Obama has seen his standing among Catholic voters, a crucial segment of the electorate, slip in recent weeks, and a looming confrontation with Catholic activists could make it worse. Democrats want voters this year to focus on what they have branded a war on women, but the flip side of the debate—the so-called war on religion—is not going away anytime soon.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called for two weeks of public protest in June and July against what it sees as growing government encroachment on religious freedom. The protests are expected to include priests and nuns and thousands of Catholic parishioners. Some activists expect civil disobedience, which could lead to powerful images of priests and nuns being led away in hand restraints.
“This is the most dynamic situation I’ve ever seen since I’ve been involved in Catholics and politics,” said Deal Hudson, president of Catholic Advocate, who also headed Catholic outreach for the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2000 and 2004. “I think civil disobedience is almost inevitable. I think that kind of protest is on the way.”
Republican strategists say the rallies and protests could become powerfully symbolic in the presidential election. “These would be devastating images for the Obama administration,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “You have a very important religious demographic coming out in protest of Obama’s policies and being arrested for their expression. These images would be politically damaging for the president’s campaign.”
And the conference could go beyond protests—it has also discussed working with evangelical Christian groups on a broader public relations campaign that could include television and radio ads. Steven Wagner, the president of QEV Analytics, a polling firm that recently conducted a survey for The Catholic Association, said religion could emerge as a sleeper issue in the election: “Everyone says this election is about the economy. I can see the issue of religious liberty being what decides the race. If Obama continues to lose Catholics by the margin the Pew poll suggests, that means he could lose the key swing states of Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Iowa.”
Losses in those states could cost Obama the White House, and the states are likely aware of that fact. Wagner noted the administration will likely try to be careful and avoid provoking Catholic activists before the election.
Obama has lost support among Catholic voters since the beginning of his term. A March 21 poll by the Pew Research Center found a “noticeable shift in opinions” among white Catholics in their views of the administration. Thirty-one percent of white Catholics now describe it as unfriendly to religion, compared to 17 percent in August of 2009.
The administration’s mandate requiring faith-based organizations to cover the healthcare costs of contraception has been the biggest cause of Catholics’ concern. The conference of bishops was not mollified by Obama’s effort to accommodate their concerns or his decision to maintain restrictions on Plan B, the morning-after pill.
In late January, priests in scores of churches across the country read letters from the pulpit urging congregants to contact members of Congress to oppose the new rule. Larry Cirignano, a Catholic activist, said evangelical groups such as the Christian Coalition had sent out direct mail to raise money to push back against the Obama administration. “It’s not just Catholics that are against the contraception mandate. I think you’ll see a lot more people troubled by this. If this goes through, there’s no stopping what’s next,” he said. “It’s all about all the religious freedom issues, from putting God into the Pledge of Allegiance to putting ‘In God we trust’ on money.”
The conference of bishops also sees a threat of broad government infringement on religious liberty and practice. The organization has criticized Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and Illinois for revoking the licenses of Catholic adoption and foster care services for declining to place children with same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples. It has also accused the federal government of discrimination for requiring the conference’s program for victims of human trafficking to offer victims contraceptive and abortion services or to make referrals for those services.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the conference, said Catholics are “in the stage of preparation about what parishes can do.” But James Salt, the executive director of Catholics United, a social justice group aligned with more liberal politics, said the public relations campaign is misguided. “It reflects a great misplaced priority of the bishops,” he said. “In no way is it apparent to me how Catholics in America are oppressed. Their positioning in society is greater than their numbers. There are six Catholic members of the Supreme Court. “This is part of a very orchestrated campaign by the bishops to make contraception the focus of the 2012 election,” he said. He stated that the broader goal of the bishop’s conference is to put Mitt Romney in the White House so he can put a fifth conservative justice on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion.
Alexander Bolton writes for TheHill, from where this article is adapted.