From the Editor
The 2012 election cycle was not supposed to be about religion. Back in 2009,
the Obama presidency held out hope, at least to Democrats, of ending the
culture war that had beset American politics since 1980.
There was Obama’s rock-’em, sock-’em speech to the 2004 Democratic National
Convention, in which the then obscure Illinois state senator talked about
how an awesome God was worshipped in the blue states. There was his 2006
Call to Renewal speech, which revealed a Democratic politician obliging
secularists to give the religiously motivated their due.
There was his flirtation with evangelical mega-pastor Rick Warren, summoned
to give the invocation at the Inaugural. And there was his decision to keep
the Bush faith-based initiative going in the White House and even sidestep a
fight over religious discrimination in hiring by publicly funded faith-based
social service providers. A new Advisory Council, including a goodly array
of center-right religious leaders, seemed proof that here was a Democratic
president set on bridging the country’s religious divide.
On the Republican side, meanwhile, the 2006 loss of majorities in Congress
was with good reason taken to mean that the GOP had overplayed its religion
cards—not just abortion and same-sex marriage but the Bush Administration’s
whole Christians-on-the-march thing. The silver lining of the Great
Recession was that it sluiced conservative distress away from the religious
right and into the new Tea Party movement—a miscellany of organizations
galvanized to protest big government, taxes, and deficits. Never mind that
many Tea Partiers were evangelicals who had cut their political teeth in the
culture war. Never mind that opposition to mosque-building proved to be a
useful wedge issue. The next cycle would be about the economy, stupid.
And so, with the Class of ’10 ensconced in Washington, pollsters put aside
their religious identifiers, got rid of the “social issues” questions, and
set out to gauge the impact of hard times on the reelection chances of
Barack Obama. But funny things began to happen on the way to November 2012.
Last August, an obscure Supreme Court case called Hosanna-Tabor became a
cause célèbre when the Justice Department decided to use it to call into
question the so-called ministerial exception: the right of religious
institutions to hire and fire those they considered ministers regardless of
anti-discrimination laws. Although lower courts had long recognized the
exception, the Supreme Court had never pronounced upon it.
Religious lobbies across a wide spectrum spent the fall ginning up concern
about the case. How could the Administration fail to recognize that
religious liberty in America depends on being able to freely determine who
does and does not minister? On January 11, the Court slam-dunked the
Then on January 20, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that
it would stand by its proposed rule requiring all health insurers to cover
contraceptive services, excepting only religious employers narrowly
concerned with providing religious services with employees largely drawn
from their own religious communities. Faith-based hospitals, universities,
and social service providers were not excused from the mandate.
The result was an intense controversy of several weeks, leading to a
presidential accommodation in which faith-based non-profits were given their
exception, and insurers required to provide the coverage free of charge. The
two episodes provided some basis for a new Republican charge in the culture
war—that the Democratic powers-that-be were not merely spiritually
indifferent or tone-deaf but actually hostile to religious liberty, and to
religion itself. Newt Gingrich had been trying to detonate the charge for
some time, but his own checkered past made him an imperfect delivery system.
As Super Tuesday rolled into view, it was Rick Santorum who was most
effectively using it to blast his way to the GOP nomination.
The situation was not without its ironies. A conservative Catholic,
Santorum’s principal goal was to appeal to evangelical Protestants who, once
upon a time, would have refused to vote for him. That they were more than
prepared to do so was, in the long view, thanks to the success of John F.
Kennedy in persuading Americans that a Catholic could safely serve as
president of the United States.
It thus struck many as ungrateful to say the least for Santorum to claim to
have “almost vomited” when he read JFK’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston
Ministerial Association—the speech that, more than any other single act,
laid the ghost of anti-Catholicism in America.
Be that as it may, Hosanna-Tabor and the contraception mandate effectively
tied religious liberty to the anti-governmentism that had become the central
political cause of the Republican Party. The mandate itself was an
emblematic piece of the new health care law—Obamacare—repeal of which bid
fair to become the principal issue of the general election.
All in all, and despite the wishes of the wise guys in both parties,
religion was back, bigger and badder than ever.