Throughout the ongoing debate over President Barack Obama’s contraceptive mandate, and again on Monday, when Catholic leaders here in St. Louis and nationwide announced anti-mandate lawsuits, one question has surfaced repeatedly among Obama’s critics and allies alike: Why choose an election year to pick a fight with the Catholic Church?
The mandate controversy is, after all, the president’s own creation. As St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson said in a press conference Monday, when explaining why the Archdiocese and Catholic Charities of St. Louis joined 41 other organizations in suing the Obama administration, “The church did not pick this fight or its timing. The federal government did.”
So why did Obama choose this year to try to force Catholic institutions to subsidize contraceptives, sterilization procedures and the potentially abortion-inducing “morning-after pill,” a drug that can destroy embryos by preventing their implantation in the uterine lining? Why did he make the mandate’s religious exemption so narrow that it defines as “religious” only those organizations that primarily employ and serve members of their own faith — a test that even Mother Teresa’s faith-saturated ministries would flunk? And why, when confronted with the widespread, ecumenical uproar over the mandate’s violation of the First Amendment, did he propose as an “accommodation” a cheap accounting trick, one that still forces Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for drugs and services they consider immoral?
Surely, the president has seen Catholics mobilizing en masse for religious liberty rallies across America. He must know about last month’s Pew poll, which found that his 9-point advantage with Catholic voters from the 2008 election has dissolved into a 5-point deficit today. He cannot be blind to the avalanche of mandate-related lawsuits that are begging for Supreme Court review. So why not just let Catholic groups off the hook for contraception coverage and find another way to fund his “free” birth control plan?
The answer: Obama must think the mandate is an electoral winner.
Of course, the president may also harbor a passion for the principle of employer-subsidized — and church-subsidized — birth control. But Obama is not known for letting such principles impede his political prospects. Consider his recent “evolution” on gay marriage, in which he embraced same-sex nuptials just in time to collect a boatload of big checks from his socially liberal and increasingly impatient donor base. Amid the fanfare over his “principled” stand for gay rights, mainstream media reports ignored the fact that Obama already had taken that stand 16 years earlier as an aspiring Illinois Senate candidate, only to later repudiate it when support for gay marriage threatened to torpedo his national political ambitions.
Obama is a man of the left, but he is a man who likes to win. And clearly, he believes that any losses he sustains among Catholics angered by his stubbornness on the mandate will be more than offset by gains among fans of that mandate — including, he hopes, Catholic women. Given how many Catholic women disregard their church’s teaching on birth control, he must have reasoned, how could his clash with the bishops fail to help him in November?
It’s a logical bet, but also a risky one. It’s true that American Catholics are a cantankerous lot, our messy house full of feuding factions and more than a few nominal believers contemptuous of church authority. Yet many pockets of the church also are brimming with youthful vitality and enthusiasm for Catholic doctrine. And even among the large swath of casual Catholics who chafe at church teaching on issues like contraception, tribal loyalty to Catholicism dies hard. The sight of Uncle Sam bullying Holy Mother Church brings to mind that old schoolyard saying: Only I can insult my mother.
Beyond Catholic loyalties, there is the American instinct for defending religious freedom. That instinct runs deep among Catholics who still remember the days when their faith was regarded as alien and suspect by America’s Protestant majority.
As for the opinions of Catholic women, polls show that party affiliation and churchgoing habits better predict one’s reaction to the mandate than gender. Judging from the faces crowding those religious liberty rallies and the names on the womenspeakforthemselves.com  open letter — which has attracted some 28,000 signatories just three months after its authors, attorneys Helen Alvaré and Kim Daniels, emailed it to a couple dozen friends — many of the fiercest opponents of Obama’s purportedly pro-woman mandate are women.
It’s too soon to tell if Obama’s gambit to divide and conquer the Catholic vote will pay off. But the early results do not look good for the president. In hunting for an easy target, Obama has awakened a sleeping giant and rallied Catholics to a level of political attentiveness and cohesion not seen in years. This may be one fight he will wish he had dodged.