who are the republicans kidding in the contraception debate?

I wrote last week about the controversy over the administration’s rule that originally mandated Catholic-affiliated institutions provide their employees with insurance that covers contraceptives, which was later revised under a hail of holy bullets to require the insurance companies themselves to provide contraceptives directly to employees of impacted organizations. This compromise seemed so reasonable that I expected the issue to go away quickly. In fact, according to Joan Walsh, a host of Catholic organizations approved of the altered rule, “including the Catholic Health Association, Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and Catholic Charities USA,” and only the bishops remain steadfast in their condemnation. According to their statement, issued shortly after word of the change was announced eight days ago, “the only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.” That seems to imply they want the rule to go away for everyone, not just Catholics. I’m as surprised as I am sure you are to learn the Catholic church might suggest something that seems on it’s face to be a ridiculous idea.

Actually, it isn’t just the bishops who persist in maintaining opposition to the contraception rule. Perhaps enabled by the continuing attacks from the Catholic church, the republicans have continued to take to the media to push back. Sean Hannity assembled an all-male panel of religious figures the night of the announcement, who compared the administration to Nazi Germany and claimed they would go to prison or even sacrifice their lives over “the war on religion.” (John Stewart’s excellent take on this panel is a must-watch.) Last Thursday, Foster Friess, who probably sacrificed a lucrative franchise of fast food joints named after himself to instead become a millionaire mutual fund owner and a Rick Santorum supporter and bankroller, told MSNBC that back in his day, “they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”

The republican leadership haven’t abated their assault either. On the same day Friess wistfully recalled the halcyon days when the women just kept their legs closed, Rep. Darrell Issa, republican of California, convened a hearing in the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he chairs entitled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” Two female democrats walked out of the proceedings because no women were involved. Issa made clear his sham trial was not about contraceptives or women’s health but was rather about religious liberty. Also on Thursday, the St. Louis Beacon reported that Sen. Roy Blunt, republican of Missouri, will be permitted to submit a “rights of conscience” amendment that would allow any person to object to any coverage rule if they object to it. I’ve already addressed how manifestly ridiculous such a provision is in a nation ostensibly ruled by law, but the most remarkable thing about this amendment is that, according to that same Beacon report, it will be affixed to “a major transportation bill.” Now before you accuse Congress of being hopelessly politicized and corrupted, consider how alike highways and fallopian tubes are, and the logic of this move becomes self-evident.

Rick Santorum sallied forth in the fray again today. At a Tea Party rally in Ohio, as well as accusing Obama of being un-Christian, he maintained the Administration is raping religious liberty on the contraception issue:

The president has reached a new low in this country’s history of oppressing religious freedom that we have never seen before. If he doesn’t want to call his imposition of his values a theology that’s fine, but it is an imposition of his values over a church who has very clear theological reasons for opposing what the Obama administration is forcing on them… If he doesn’t want to call his imposition of his values a theology, that’s fine… It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology, but no less a theology.

I find these remarks to be quite interesting. While the other republicans have chosen to frame their argument as a complaint against a fairly broad attack on religious liberty, Santorum, a Catholic himself, is choosing to keep it personal. In so doing, he loses all legitimacy. The rule change now exempts Catholics from being forced to provide contraceptives (except in those cases where Catholic institutions are self-insured, a set of cases Santorum doesn’t appear to explicitly call out), so no one is forcing any religious institution to do anything. When Santorum charged hours after it was unveiled that the rule change didn’t change anything for him, we might have forgiven him for not having had suitable time to consider its implications. But to maintain more than a week later that the rule represents a unprecedented low in religious oppression is a manifestly absurd remark, especially when he calls the oppression itself a “theology.”

What could justify Santorum’s view? Surely there will be the occasional health professional or insurance administrator who has religious concerns about birth control, but such an individual has made an odd choice by actively engaging in an industry whose sole purpose is to play god with medicine. Regardless, those individuals are not Catholic actors, so ‘persecuting’ them is not at all the same as hamstringing the church at large, especially when so many Catholics have used birth control. And remember, such a scenario is an extreme edge case, since the widespread availability of family planning services is proof that a large contingent of health care providers has no qualms about providing birth control.

The only explanation happens to be the obvious one, that Santorum’s charge is transparently political. The republicans are creating a tempest in a teacup over the small percentage of health care providers who have religious concerns about providing birth control. His audience in this scheme is not that group, though; it is the much larger percentage of Americans who have religious concerns about the use of birth control. By using such a brazenly lousy argument, Santorum is trying to appeal to social conservatives that already feel, as he does, that “oppressive theology” from the government is appropriate when it serves the ends of social conservatives, and not otherwise. He might also be trying to scoop up easily confused people who won’t notice that the new rule doesn’t do what he says it does. But he probably already got most of them, or at least those who might ever be sympathetic to his views, when he got the social conservatives.

Much has been said about what the republicans think they’re doing. But the answer to the question of who the republicans are trying to kid by this hot mess is the republicans. How surprising during a presidential primary season.

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