Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
The debate over the Obama administration’s controversial contraception mandate was reignited on Monday, when 43 Catholic institutions filed lawsuits in federal court, challenging the rule that requires religiously affiliated institutions to provide no-cost birth control coverage to their employees through their insurance coverage.
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School, excoriated the White House for their “move to conscript religious organizations into a political agenda, forcing them to facilitate and fund services that violate their beliefs, within their own organizations.” The Catholic institutions are suing because, in their view, the mandate encroaches upon the institutions’ religious liberty.
The lawsuits – filed by the Archdioceses of New York, Washington, and St. Louis, the University of Notre Dame, and the Catholic University of America, among others – made a splash, months after the contraceptive mandate initially spurred an outcry from religious and religiously affiliated institutions. But the March PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey indicates that the argument about religious liberty might not be the most effective one, at least for the general public. A majority (57%) of Catholics (like most Americans) believe that religious liberty is not being threatened in America today.
Furthermore, Catholics tend to be fairly supportive of the contraception coverage requirements, at least for most types of work places. Roughly 6-in-10 Catholics report that religiously affiliated social service agencies, colleges, and hospitals should be required to provide health care plans that cover contraception. Nearly two-thirds (65%) say that publicly held corporations should be held to the requirement. Catholics are, however, divided on whether religious bodies should be compelled to provide this coverage.
White Catholics tend to be more conservative on this issue than their co-religionists. For example, while Catholics overall make a sharp distinction between religious bodies like churches and religiously affiliated institutions, white Catholics see them as similar, at least in terms of whether they should be required to comply with the rule. Fewer than half of white Catholics believe that churches (43%), religiously affiliated colleges (43%), social service agencies (44%), and hospitals (48%) should be required to include contraception coverage in their insurance plans.
This is clearly a divisive issue, even within the Catholic community. What remains unclear is whether Catholic leaders will be successful in rallying their flock against the White House’s controversial rule.