"This is a violation of conscience. We must have a President who is willing to protect America's first right, our right to worship God."
- Mitt Romney, speaking in Colorado on Monday
From Rick Santorum’s wins to the birth control controversy, this week probably reaffirmed what we already knew: religion plays a large role in U.S. politics. The birth control debate, in particular, is making for good dinner-table conversation in our house (that is, during the five minutes before we fall asleep post work, bath and bed time).
First, the Santorum Surprise
Santorum, the most religiously conservative candidate among those vying for the Republican nomination, won contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. Santorum is a devout Roman Catholic and has always been a favorite of evangelicals. His wins underscore how split the Republican party remains as to who should be their candidate.
Second, Obama vs. Catholics
Catholic authorities and the Obama administration have been clashing for weeksover the administration’s decision to require certain religious organizations to cover birth control in their health insurance offerings without a copay.
But the sparring bubbled up to front-page news this week as Republicans seized the issue,calling it an affront to religious freedoms, and leading Romney to make the bold statement above. Congressional Republicans threatened legislation to overturn the policy, playing up the issue as one of religious liberty rather than women’s health, while Democrats rallied in support of the move.
The White House signaled it was open to awork-around, and by Friday, a compromise was announced: women who work for affected religious institutions, largely hospitals and universities, will still have access to free contraception through their insurer, who will pick up the cost, leaving the employer out of it. While this may seem costly for insurers, the argument is that the alternative--pregnancy--is far more expensive. (See White House Fact Sheet on the revised policy.)
Interestingly, a recent poll shows that 58% of Catholics actually support a requirement that health insurers cover birth control (see chart). Ah, politics!
Despite Santorum’s wins this week, Romney, a Mormon, remains well ahead in national polls of Republican voters. Does the Santorum surge suggest discomfort among Republicans about electing a Mormon? Although Mormonsconsider themselves Christians, some on the religious right have likened Mormonism to a cult. Still, despite this, Pew Research shows Romney’s strongest support against Obama in a general election would come from evangelicals (76% say they would vote for him), and that his Mormonism will likely be more of a factor in the primaries than in November’s vote. (Obama’s strongest supporters are religiously unaffiliated.)
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are still in it to win. Paul identifies as a Baptist but is a libertarian and basically leaves religion out of the conversation. Gingrich was a Baptist until he married his third wife Callista, at which point he converted to Catholicism. He has actively courted evangelical voters, claiming that Democrats are waging a “war” on religion, but many on the religious right remain skeptical due to Gingrich’s rather tumultuous personal history (he had a long-time affair with Callista before marrying her).
Religious voters have been the bedrock of the Republican voting base for decades. They are a crucial, organized block and the GOP needs them to turn out at the polls in November if it wants to unseat Obama. But it will be interesting to see which candidate is able to strike the right chord to mobilize this key group.
Good dinner table discussion
The spat over birth control coverage makes for a lively discussion about the separation of church and state. One side argues that being forced to cover birth control flies in the face of their religious freedoms as protected in the Bill of Rights. But while religious institutions are free to practice, they are still subject to the laws of the state. What do you think?