How’d That “War on Religion” Wedge Issue Work Out?

A dog that definitely did not bark on November 7th was the once-very-intense Republican effort to “wedge” Catholic voters with claims the Obama administration was waging a “war on religion,” notably via the allegedly insufficient exemptions it offered to a contraception coverage mandate created by Obamacare. Obama won Catholics by a 50-48 vote, almost exactly his margin among voters generally, and continuing Catholic voters’ very close similarity to the electorate as a whole. The failure of the “war on religion” effort is all the more remarkable since it received tactic (and in some cases overt) support from the Catholic hierarchy, particularly via the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign during the spring, aimed at mobilizing the faithful against the contraception mandate.

In a thoughtful piece for the National Catholic Reporter on Election Eve, Maryland parish priest Fr. Peter Daly examined the failure of the “Fortnight for Freedom,” and basically schooled the bishops:

Our Catholic bishops started out leading a political parade in the spring. But when they looked behind them in the fall, they discovered that almost nobody was following. What happened?

A few groups got in line. The Knights of Columbus were very active. EWTN had several programs devoted to Fortnight. There were some rallies around the country. A lot of money was spent on pamphlets and videos. There was an opening Mass in Baltimore and a closing Mass in Washington, D.C. But there was hardly any talk about it in the pews. The average Catholic hardly even noticed a Fortnight for Freedom was happening.

Why didn’t this movement catch fire? Four reasons, I think.

First, perhaps some of our language was hyperbolic. When language is perceived as exaggerated, it is not taken seriously.

Bishops and Catholic publications used words like “alarming,” “unprecedented” and “unconscionable” about the HHS mandate. But most people did not see it as an existential threat to our religious liberty. They saw it as a disagreement over government policy….

Second, the statement that this was unprecedented was not historically accurate.

Bishops said that never before had people been required to violate their religious conscience to comply with the law. But every day, we tax Quakers and other religious pacifists to support wars. Jehovah’s Witnesses pay Medicare taxes for blood transfusions. Seventh-day Adventists in the military must report to duty on Saturdays. Mormons had to give up their cherished practice of polygamy as the price for bringing Utah into the Union. The fact is that religious liberty has never been absolute.

Third, the Catholic church is not a convincing defender of religious liberty because of our own history…..

Fourth, the Fortnight for Freedom was perceived as a partisan effort to influence the election.

The bishops, of course, did not intend to be partisan and vociferously denied that they were partisan, but both sides of the political equation perceived “Fortnight” as an effort to defeat President Barack Obama. I went to one Knights of Columbus meeting that ended with a blunt appeal to “get behind our bishops” and defeat the president.

Fr. Daly might have added that sizable majorities of the laity don’t agree with traditional Church teachings on contraception to begin with, and that the hierarchy is not exactly standing on high moral ground these days. But he’s right: The Bishops and their political allies wrote a check on “the Catholic vote” they couldn’t cover. We’ll see if what looked to be a burgeoning alliance between conservative evangelicals and Catholic “traditionalists” of the sort that Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus long dreamed of will find a way to make a comeback after this ignominious incident.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.