Ramping Up the Religious Rhetoric

February 27th, 2012 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Rather than recount, from the beginning, this past month’s riot of male-only hearings and rhetorical backlash on the federal decision that coverage for women’s contraception should be part of a national health care policy, let’s jump right to the end result, reported via the Associated Press in the Albuquerque Journal Feb. 22:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Tuesday that President Barack Obama’s administration has “fought against religion” and sought to substitute a “secular” agenda for one grounded in faith.

AP reporter Kasie Hunt correctly led with the most revealing comment to come out of the town hall-style Michigan meeting Romney attended that day. Candidate Romney was criticizing the incumbent – the president of the United States – for governing from a civil, secular platform, rather than a religious one.

Take it a step further, and Romney seemed to say that he, on the other hand, would make decisions of governance based on faith.

Keep in mind this is Mitt Romney, not Rick Santorum, the GOP presidential candidate who this past month revealed his belief that contraception gives people “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” (Note: A recent Pew poll finds that Santorum’s views are not universal among Catholics; just 8 percent view contraception as “morally wrong.”)

The New York Times’ Timothy Egan, who has said Santorum “makes Mitt Romney look blandly secular by comparison,” adds that:

Notably, Santorum, a far-right Catholic, has taken issue with President John F. Kennedy, a moderate Catholic, for having said that his presidency would not be dictated by his faith. This view, Santorum said in 2010, has caused “great harm to America.”

So, how has the Journal covered the religious backlash in the wake of the administration’s Jan. 30 announcement?

I would say it has covered the controversy fairly well, with an understandable but hasty editorial position and at least one flagrant misstep in the letters section, which I’ll get to in another post.

Its straightforward first story, which ran Jan. 31 on C3, noted that the contraceptive mandate could go all the way to the Supreme Court, with two religious colleges already suing over it.

Based on that story, the Journal editorial board wasted no time in coming down on the mandate with its Sunday (Feb. 5) editorial, “Contraceptive Rule Steps on Freedom of Religion,” declaring the mandate “should be overturned by the courts.”

The editorial ran even before Archbishop Michael Sheehan joined other bishops in saying he would not comply, which the Journal covered with a locally reported story (Feb. 6 on D1).

But then, on Feb. 10, the administration announced its modification of the contraception rule, which would have insurance companies, rather than religious organizations, provide free birth control coverage for workers. The Journal’s front page coverage of the change led with local reportage saying Archbishop Sheehan would “reserve judgment” on the new proposal until briefed further (which, as my colleague Arthur Alpert noted to me is not “weighing in” as the headline had promised. But as a former headline writer, I can see how well the words “Sheehan” “Weighs In” “On Birth” “Control” fit in the narrow space allotted on A1 that day).

That story explained that:

Under Obama’s revised plan, religious employers such as charities, universities and hospitals will not have to offer contraception and will not have to refer their employees to places that provide it. If an employer opts out of the requirement, its insurance company must provide birth control for free in a separate arrangement with workers who want it.

Two days later, Michael Coleman of the Journal’s Washington Bureau reported the response of New Mexico’s U.S. congressmen, with “Contraceptive Rule’s Impact Negligible Here:”

Perhaps one reason the policy didn’t send New Mexico lawmakers into a political panic, as it did the White House, is that the state is one of 26 nationwide that has a law requiring insurers that cover prescription drugs to provide coverage for any Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive. New Mexico is also among about 20 states that provide religion-based exemptions from contraceptive coverage.

“As far as I know this would not be a change from the status quo in New Mexico,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said.

Although New Mexico has a large population of Catholics, delegation offices reported hearing very little about this issue from constituents. As of Friday afternoon, the office of Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., had received just 25 calls.

Rep. Steve Pearce, the lone Republican, however, “maintained his opposition after Obama announced his compromise.” Coleman reported:

“In this compromise, the president is suggesting that people negotiate away their constitutional freedom of religion,” Pearce said. . . .“The government is stepping into our churches.”

Jarringly, however, all four of New Mexico’s elected lawmakers were beat to the punch on this topic by U.S. Senate candidate Heather Wilson, who garnered a prominent place on the Op-Ed Page (Feb. 10) with her column, “Stand Up, Refuse Obama’s Mandate.” She not only got her views in sooner, she got more ink and better play, with a column that ran at 435 words, compared to the 599 the four elected members of Congress shared in Coleman’s piece, which ran at the bottom of the editorial page bundled with other Washington-based news.

That the Journal allows on its Op-Ed pages electioneering like Wilson’s column is a topic for another day. On the other hand, one could posit that Wilson was done a disservice. That is, her column ran after Obama’s compromise, yet the compromise was not reflected in Wilson’s column. Note its lead sentence:

Last week the Obama administration crossed a line that no American government should ever cross.

So, her column was based on last week’s action, as yet unmodified by the compromise. At the same time, however, she took the opportunity to attack the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which she deemed “unconstitutional” (and whose name she misstated as the Patient Protection Act and “Obamacare”).

So, the “disservice” argument is minimized. Blasting both the act and the unmodified contraceptive proposal, she had a platform to declare:

This is not about whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, or your views on contraception. I am Methodist, not Catholic. I am pro-life. This is not about birth control, and it’s not about women’s health care.

It’s about whether religious liberty still has meaning in America.

And:

To the founders of our nation, the only thing more important than liberty was faith. For most Americans, that remains true today.

. . .Catholic leaders have made very clear that they will not comply with this new mandate. . . . Whatever your faith, or even if you practice no faith at all, we must stand for liberty.

We will not comply.

As the AP story quoted at the beginning of this post stated as in describing reaction to the Jan. 30 announcement:

Opponents frame the debate as one of religious liberty, while proponents of the mandate say it’s about women’s health and access to contraception.

Wilson, an opponent, definitely frames it as a question of religious liberty in her Journal column.

To quote from the other side, New York Times columnist Andrew Rosenthal pointed out in talking about the reaction to the modified proposal for insurance coverage of contraceptives:

. . .this is an example of where religious doctrine intrudes into public policy.

Adding:

The First Amendment also protects civic society from domination by any particular religion.

Talk about the Constitution and civil law, rather than religious doctrine, seems to have taken a back seat in this past month’s discussions.

The day of Coleman’s column, the Journal ran a lengthy AP story on A5 saying the backlash was unexpected for the administration, although the story led with, “It’s not like he wasn’t warned,” veering into analysis territory. But it was a thorough summary of the genesis of the original mandate and its modification.

That same day, the Journal ran a letters page filled with voices in favor of contraception as a basic part of women’s health. Of the eight letters, only the first, from Sheehan, voiced opposition to the mandate, although, like Wilson’s column, it appeared to have been written before Obama modified the rule. In his letter, Sheehan thanked the Journal for its editorial (on the original mandate) and never once referred to or proffered a position on the modified plan.

(A side note: It’s likely an oversight, but these Feb. 12 letters were not posted on the Journal’s Web site as of this writing, although a group of seven letters more mixed in response, which ran four days later, had been.)

Headlines on the other Feb. 12 letters reflect their contents: “Medical Services Know No Religion,” “The Well-Being of Women Is the Issue,” “Keep Your Dogma on a Short Leash,” “The Holy Roman Empire’s Long Over,” “The Majority of People Want It,” “Don’t Try To Force Your Values on Me,” and “In the End, It’s All About Our Health.”

Meanwhile, despite the ramped-up religious rhetoric, the reality is that the controversy does come down to health care. In many small communities in America, the only available hospital is Catholic, as the New York Times reports, adding:

Financially stronger Catholic-sponsored medical centers are increasingly joining with smaller secular hospitals . . .

. . .local and state officials, doctors and advocates in many communities are concerned that some procedures that run counter to Catholic doctrine may no longer be available or will be much more limited. . . . The restrictions at any given hospital may not be clear. “Women simply don’t know what they’re getting,” said Jill C. Morrison, senior counsel in health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center.

Basing health care decisions on religious beliefs and political rhetoric won’t clear that up any time soon.

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