Demands for religious exemptions are not restricted to the Republican Party. President Obama’s recent mandate for contraception in employer health care packages has certain Congressional Democrats up in arms. In particular, those legislators beholden to Catholic leadership are expressing disquiet.
“I think the White House made a good decision in including a mandate for contraception coverage in the [health care act] insurance policy,” said Obama’s former DNC Chairman Tim Kaine, in a WHRV radio interview. “But I think they made a bad decision in not allowing a broad enough religious employer exemption.” (LINK)
Sen. Bob Casey and House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson have voiced concern over the lack of religious exceptionalism, as have freshman Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan expressed outrage at the policy, calling it “terribly misguided” during a CBS This Morning interview. (LINK) Dolan also hinted at a gross disservice to Catholics everywhere, whom he believes Obama gave assurances of religious exemption. “”I am hoping that this massive negative reaction to this ruling, I am hoping that he will go back to those assurances that he gave me,”
The thing is, there is a religious exemption in the law. In keeping with longstanding policy, the nation’s 355,000 or so churches are not required to provide birth control with their health policies. Dolan and other prominent political spokesmen are upset because universities, hospitals, and charities are not also exempt.
More to the point, the “massive negative reaction” predicted by the good friar is most likely to come from Capitol Hill Theocrats who are out of touch with their constituency. According to the February PRRI Religion and Politics Tracking Poll, nearly 60% of Catholics support the proposition that all employers must provide birth control in health care packages. (LINK) This statistic may come as a surprise, but Catholic leadership in America has been growing more and more out of touch with the average Catholic. In part, this gap certainly reflects disillusionment over the child abuse scandal, but it also represents a sharp theocratic turn at the political level, which has left many older Catholics — who supported and believed in John F. Kennedy — feeling abandoned by both their church and their party.
The demographic breakdown on support for birth control mandates demonstrates an even sharper disconnect between theocratic political leaders and the average American. A full 55% of Americans support the mandate, with nearly as many Catholics as “unaffiliated” (Read: Non-religious) voters in favor. In fact, the only demographic that is not in clear support are white evangelicals at 38%.
Theocrats in both parties are demonstrating a very clear devotion to ideology in favor of the will of the people. On issues like gay marriage, birth control, abortion, and religious exceptionalism, they are creating the illusion of controversy when in fact, there is little to argue about. This is a small cadre of religious idealists who believe they can foist their extremist policies upon a complacent public.
Ultimately, we the complacent public must take responsibility for this state of affairs. In general, politicians from all sides of the debate do not make sweeping changes without believing it will further their own aspirations. Washington Theocrats believe — with very good reason — that their continued support of exceptionalism and extremism will earn them massive cash rolls from powerful special interest groups. President Obama and more progressive Democrats have little reason to believe that supporting separation of church and state and the secularization of government will earn them anything but a plane ticket home and an early retirement.
This is a sad state of affairs, since poll after poll demonstrates a clear ideological divide between Washington and the workaday American. The divide is growing as brobdingnagian mountains of untaxed political capital continue to flow freely from massive megachurches to Super-PACs. As churches continue to exploit their loopholes while unabashedly preaching politics from the pulpits, the power behind the “religious exceptionalism movement” shows little sign of diminishing.
The time for quiet “live and let live” political philosophy has passed. Each and every American who disagrees with religious exceptionalism must take it upon themselves to put pressure on politicians at every level. Those who would remove the protection of government neutrality are activists, and they are very well funded. They are clearly at odds with the will of the people, but that will not matter if the people do not act against them. Each of us must redouble, and then redouble again our efforts to build ground support for progressive candidates, to encourage the ousting from office of any politician who does not reflect our values, and to send a loud and unequivocal message to the White House: We will not stand for the takeover of our country by an elitist good-old boy network of extremists.