Barack Obama thought he was only picking a fight with the Roman Catholic bishops. He thought he could limit the argument over his health care mandate to a controversy over condoms.
He's getting a bigger fight than he imagined.
Condoms were once limited to dispensing machines in men's rooms in bus stations and truck stops ("Sold for the Prevention of Disease Only"). This sometimes confused teenage boys who thought condoms were made for preventing something else. But nearly everybody knew you didn't talk about condoms in polite grown-up company.
Now a lot of mothers, including a lot of Catholic mothers, slip a condom into a daughter's purse before she leaves the house for the prom. President Obama only wants to make sure everyone has a rubber in his pocket or purse. The way to do that is to make them "free" by federal fiat. How could anyone object to doing the right thing?
How, indeed. Jay Carney, the president's faithful mouthpiece, explains that only Mr. Obama's heart, ever expanding in pursuit of right things for the federal government to do, is at work here. "The administration decided - the president agrees with this decision - that we need to provide these services that have enormous health benefits for American women and that the exemption that we carved out is appropriate."
The president's feminist allies might not always like men all that much, but some things are too important to leave to a woman's own initiative. "What I can tell you," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a reliable Democratic nanny, "is that women and men, in general, largely support the ability for women to have access to contraceptives. I don't think they're going to like having someone represent them that wants to take away that right." This is an odd argument, since the senator can find all the rubbers she needs at the corner drugstore.
But now it turns out that the president's fight isn't just against the Catholic bishops after all. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, vows that Baptist institutions "will not comply" with the Obama mandate requiring religious institutions, Catholic or not, to cover various birth-control devices, such as condoms, in their health insurance programs. "We want the law changed," he says, "or else we're going to write our letters from the Nashville jail, just like Dr. [Martin Luther] King wrote his from the Birmingham jail."
"The Obama administration," says Mr. Land and Barrett Duke, vice president of the Baptist ethics commission, "has declared war on religion and freedom of conscience. We consider this callous requirement by the Obama administration to be a clear violation of our nation's commitment to liberty of conscience and a flagrant violation of our constitutional protection to freedom of religion."
This is exactly how the issue should be drawn. The president can win the argument as long as it is a theological debate over the morality of condoms, IUDs and other devices that prevent pregnancies (and what our unenlightened grandparents called "social diseases"). But Mr. Obama and his feminist allies can't win the argument when the issue is drawn, correctly, as a violation of the First Amendment's protection of religious conscience.
Condoms today, abortion tomorrow, and who knows what on the day after that. Only last month a committee of the legislature of the state of Washington approved something innocently called the "Reproductive Parity Act" requiring private health insurance plans to cover abortion through all stages of pregnancy. If a health insurance plan covers a full-term live birth, it has to cover late-term abortions.
Ideology like that can only be imposed by law. This is what terrifies not only bishops and evangelical preachers, who recognize a slippery slope even when most people can't, but terrifies the Americans whom President Obama scorns as those who "cling to guns and God." Mr. Obama takes comfort only in the applause of liberal churchmen who endorsed his condoms-for-everybody scheme - liberal Jews, Unitarians, stray Muslims, something called the "Planned Parenthood Clergy Advisory Board," and the usual preachers to empty pews.
The Obama White House may not be a coven of radicals out to impose their secular vision of what American could be, if only they could silence the religious conscience. But the president and his men are eager to do the work of such radicals. Only this week, an interviewer asked President Obama why he hadn't been the "transformative" president he promised to be four years ago. "I deserve a second term," he said. "We're not done."
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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