It’s National Condom Week. Seriously.

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Back in 2008, while I continued to explain how Hillary was out-debating Obama even as the polls showed his increasing edge over her, it gradually dawned on me that he was way savvier than I was.  It now appears that I may have forgotten that lesson when I decried his “accommodation” on contraceptive insurance coverage.  It looks like the Republicans have blundered into an ideological swamp and maybe, just maybe, Obama lured them into it; that either he engineered the whole contraception kerfuffle to begin with so that he could lead us out of the mess with a nice compromise, or that after the initial misstep, he recovered elegantly with his compromise.  Either way, in both scenarios, he succeeded in tying Republicans to the actual Catholic bishops’ position:  not religious freedom, but anti-contraceptionism.

Is he really this clever?  If so, that it is National Condom Week (February 14 – 21) and that February is National Condom Month seems a gratuitous embellishment.  Or has he just been lucky?  It does seem that the Republicans’ all-in response to the peevishness of the Catholic bishops – both Boehner and McConnell have now indicated that they will seek to assuage the bishops’ wounded sensibilities legislatively – is a clear political loser.  Most voters supported Obama’s original position and more seem to support his compromise.

The bishops’ original grievance – that it is an attack on religious freedom to make a devout employer pay for behavior (contraception) that is deeply offensive to his faith – has been swept away by Obama’s compromise – the insurance companies cover the cost of contraception at no cost to employer or employee – yet the bishops continue their opposition.  Even those least skeptical among us begin to say, “Wait a minute.  The bishops are not defending religious freedom.  They’re just pushing that same old papal edict against contraception.  You know, the one that 98% of sexually active U.S. Catholic women ignore.”  Do the Republicans really intend to ride this pony?

Well, maybe.  What The Great Contraception Kerfuffle demonstrates again is that when our political arguments pit internal imagination against external reality the outcome is never sure.  Who among us would have predicted that twelve years into the 21st century a serious male Republican presidential candidate would say on the campaign trail that contraception “shouldn’t even be in an insurance plan anyway because it is not, really an insurable item” as Rick Santorum did on February 10.  This is the same Santorum who has said, as recently as August 27, 2006, that “birth control” harms women and harms society”. And this is the same Santorum whose ignorant and abusive language is so repulsive to a large part of the electorate that his very name is more prominently recognized by Google as a “byproduct of anal sex” than as the man himself.  (I just checked.  This is still true.  Google “Santorum” for yourself.)   And yet today’s (February 13) Pew Research Poll of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters has Santorum as the favored Republican presidential candidate.

The external reality is that Bush drove the economy off a cliff with his unfunded wars and unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy, and that Obama is now trying to construct wings to allow the economy to level off and soar again before it crashes, with some recent modest success.  Republicans perceive, correctly, that they cannot dispute this presidential election on that ground of external reality.  They know that they must make their case on subjective, internal ground, in the collective imaginations of voters.

This is the ground, the realm of imagination, where the offended sensibilities of a few Catholic bishops are at least as important as the demonstrably universal health and welfare benefits to women from easy access to contraception.  This is the realm of pure belief, sweet emotion.  This is the comfortable playground of the modern Republican Party.  The only requirements here are that the emotions aroused in this realm include anger – or at least a strong feeling of having been abused, disrespected, offended – and that these emotions are, or can be, directed against Obama.  Thus, since Obama favors contraception, the Catholic bishops’ antipathy towards it meets these requirements and can be used not only by Santorum, the cradle Catholic candidate, but by Gingrich, the recent convert, and even by the Mormon candidate Romney, whose religion takes the whole issue of contraception away from the authority of the church and makes it a private decision of the involved parents , a position embraced in principle by secularists, most Democrats and “progressives” of all stripes, and in practice by the majority of Catholics and by 98% of sexually active Catholic women.

Yet Catholics, including those who consider themselves moderate or even progressive, are loathe to offend bishops and popes.  Consider the writer E. J. Dionne, who styles himself a “liberal Catholic”.  He opposed the original Obama position because, as the bishops assert, it forced devout employers to pay for something, contraception, that violates their core beliefs.  The Catholic MSNBC host Chris Matthews took the same position.  (To my knowledge neither of these men has noted that paying for things you strongly oppose – e.g., for many of us, drones that kill women and children on the other side of the world – is an inherent downside to a democracy.)  But both men approve the Obama accommodation, thus demonstrating that their initial opposition arose not from anti-contraceptionism, like the bishops, but from deference to the feelings, the beliefs, of their co-religionists.  Those beliefs, however, do not arise from an external reality we can all share.  They arise from a long-standing Catholic belief tradition, affirmed in 1968 in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, that the Catholic god considers all forms of contraception “gravely sinful.”

This is the dangerous power of the feedback loop of religious imagination.  Smart, good people like Dionne and Matthews permit the external reality we all share to be adversely affected by their deference to the imaginings of others, imaginings they do not share.  And that deference, displayed also by many others who do not see contraception as Satanic, feeds back into those imaginings and strengthens them.  Those imaginings, which have no referent in our shared external reality, are never required to present themselves on our common ground; they never have to be defended.  I heard no media commentator (other than Jon Stewart, of course) challenge the equation of these, apparently minority, Catholic beliefs with the demonstrable universal health and welfare benefits of easy contraceptive access.  Did you?

In justification of his continuing loyalty to Catholicism “despite our frustrations over its abysmal handling of the sexual abuse scandal and its reluctance to grant women the rights they are due” – frustration not being the emotional response most of us have to Catholicism’s institutionalized child rape and misogyny – Dionne gives us this:

When it comes to lifting up the poor, healing the sick, assisting immigrants and refugees, educating the young (especially in inner cities), comforting orphaned and abandoned children, and organizing the needy to act in their own interest, the church has been there with resources and an astoundingly committed band of sisters, priests, brothers and lay people.

But all of these admirable actions take place in our shared external reality; none has any necessary connection to the internal imaginings of any of the actors.  Applauding good acts does not justify deference to beliefs that validate bad acts.  On the common ground of our national social interaction, what you do is fundamentally important; what you say you believe, much less so.  The First Amendment codifies this behavior/belief distinction, this common ground truth.  In our nation, government may neither favor religious behavior nor repress religious belief.  This critical governmental neutrality toward religion means that governmental acts must be judged on their efficacy in promoting the general welfare, not on their conformity to religious imaginings.

So let’s all celebrate National Condom Week by telling our Congressional representatives to move along.  Let us remind them that religious belief is as unfettered in today’s United States of America as it has ever been in any nation in history.  Let us direct their attention to those pressing problems that loom in our national shared external reality, of which the sexual behavior of consenting adults, including contraception choices, is not one.

ARC – 2/12/12

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