What the contraception controversy taught us about religion in America
Last week, religious leaders, pundits and politicians alike found themselves tangled in a controversy with an unusual number of moving parts.
Opposition led by the American Catholic bishops sparked a wider protest after the Obama administration announced its new requirement that employers provide no-cost birth control to employees through their insurance plans. The White House excused churches and other places of worship from the rule, but refused to grant a similar exemption to religiously affiliated organizations like colleges, hospitals, and social agencies. The ensuing firestorm over whether this was an issue of religious liberty or women’s health resulted in a quicker-than-anticipated compromise. By weeks end, the Obama administration modified the ruling to require insurers rather than objecting religious institutions to pick up the tab, while still upholding the principle of making no-cost birth control available to all women regardless of their employer.
Based on polling from the Public Religion Research Institute, which was widely cited last week in the media, I’ve compiled the four most important insights from the contraceptive debate, which shed light how conflicting interests hung in the balance and what implications the final compromise may have for the election.
1) Americans support the general principle behind the White House’s regulation. A majority (55 percent) of Americans agree that employers should be required to provide their employees with healthcare plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost. Predictably, however, some demographic groups are more enthusiastic about the mandate than others. Roughly 6-in-10 Catholics (58 percent) agree with the requirement, broadly writ, although support is lower among Catholic voters (52 percent) and white Catholics (50 percent). Religiously unaffiliated Americans strongly support requiring employers to provide no-cost birth control (61 percent), while white mainline Protestants (50 percent) are divided. Notably, white evangelical Protestants, not Catholics, are the religious group most opposed to the general principle. Fewer than four-in-ten (38 percent) white evangelicals agree with the principle that employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover birth control at no cost.
2) Americans see churches and other places of worship as distinctly different from other religiously affiliated institutions. It was clear that the Obama administration’s decision to excuse churches and other places of worship from the requirement echoed public opinion. A solid majority (57 percent) of Americans—and similar majorities of all major religious groups—agree that churches should not be required to provide their employees with no-cost birth control through their insurance plans.
2) Americans are more divided over whether religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and colleges should be exempt from the requirement to offer employees health plans that offer no-cost contraception, and that’s where the debate got messy. The PRRI poll showed that when it came to the more complicated category of religiously affiliated hospitals, universities, and social agencies, Americans (and Catholics) are more divided:
· Nearly half of Americans agree that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide coverage that includes contraception, compared to 46 percent who disagree.
· A slim majority (52 percent) of Catholics agree with the requirement for religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges, but 45 percent disagree.
· Complicating matters more, among two key subgroups of Catholics, opposition runs higher:
o Among Catholic voters, only 45 percent support the requirement, while 52 percent oppose it.
o Among white Catholics, only about 4-in-10 (41 percent) support the requirement, and opposition rises to 58 percent.
3) While Americans overall and Catholics may be divided on whether religious institutions should be required to provide no-cost birth control in their health plans, the strategically important group of younger women strongly support the mandate . Obama’s eventual compromise cannot be understood without acknowledging just how strongly young women, who would most directly benefit from the mandate, stood on the religious exemption issue. Among women age 49 and younger (in other words, women of reproductive age), 61 percent say that religiously affiliated institutions such as colleges and hospitals should be required to provide no-cost birth control to their employees.
4) Late last week, the White House was caught between a rock and a hard place. But the eventual compromise seems to have upheld a broadly supported principle about the availability of contraception, while creating additional room for exemptions based on religious beliefs. There is evidence that the compromise may sit comfortably among Catholics in the pews, even if it did not mollify the church hierarchy. The data also suggests that rank-and-file Catholics are not animated because of moral concerns about the underlying issue of contraception itself. Findings from the Pew Research Center this week show that just 15 percent of Catholics say that using contraceptives is morally wrong, while 41 percent say it is morally acceptable and 36 percent say it is not a moral issue. Even among Catholics who attend church weekly, just 27 percent say contraception is morally wrong.
The Catholic bishops appear to be gearing up for a long fight against the mandate itself, but the Obama administration’s compromise seems likely to satisfy lay Catholics’ concerns, without losing younger women’s support in the process. Obama’ support among Catholics appears to have remained steady as the controversy raged last week, according to the latest numbers from Gallup. In the short term, though, if there is a clear beneficiary from this tumult, it was probably Catholic GOP hopeful Rick Santorum, whose campaign got a much-needed boost from the renewed focus on culture war issues. Thank you, Obama?