"This is what a feminist looks like."
So proclaimed Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He proudly held up a T-shirt bearing the declaration at a feminist forum a few blocks away from the White House. It was really a political pep rally, energizing the "reproductive health" crowd to mobilize women voters. A feminist here looks like a liberal Democrat and supporter of legal abortion who wants to assure a second term for President Obama. To hear Lynn speak, a feminist also doesn't think much of the Catholic Church.
Lynn declared that he and his fellow feminists are simply seeking to be free from the "oppression" of a "patriarchy that is right out of the 12th century." A previous speaker asserted that the Vatican should be charged with "crimes against humanity," and compared Catholic bishops to gang leaders. And the fun didn't stop there.
"I had no idea the rights I would be giving up," said an undergraduate from the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. -- my alma mater, as it happens -- said of her experience as a transfer student at the school. She painted a picture of a campus where dorm officials prowl the halls seeking to catch students copulating. According to her, sexual activity could result in expulsion.
That's not a description of the school I attended, as much as I may have wanted it to have more of a disciplined atmosphere. "Ridiculous," a recent alum says of the forum's portrait of the school: "(Campus officials) in no way seek out violations." But she adds an eminently sensible caveat: "You sign up to go to the Catholic University of America. Did you not read the name on the application?"
Among certain kinds of feminists, the very existence of a school with moral standards, to whatever degree they may or may not be enforced, is some kind of threat to the common good. The CUA student speaker has co-founded an unofficial Students for Choice group and declared her hope that "our university will one day end (its) war on women," a remark that drew a standing ovation.
The audience's view could not be clearer: The proposal that Catholic University is presenting to young people -- to consider living differently than the broader culture may expect -- is so beyond the pale of reasonable thought that it must amount to an attack on the female sex. It is deemed a shameful and oppressive proposal, even if the students and their families freely joined the community. Someone has to step in, to protect these poor people trapped in another century.
This is what the debate over the recent health care regulation that would mandate coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs is about: marginalizing what those with unprecedented federal regulatory power consider backward thinking.
Here's what the furor is really about: Democrats lost women voters in the 2010 election year, and they want them back. And they will resort to scare tactics -- even constructing threats that don't actually exist -- if they have to. Their strategy is insulting to women who don't share their hostility toward the Catholic Church and other religious groups that have tried to remain free from the temptations of our secularist age.
New York Times polling suggests that voters are wise to what's behind the incendiary, misleading rhetoric that the White House and its allies are using. When people are specifically asked if individuals and institutions with moral objections should be able to be free of government contraception coercion, freedom wins.
George Washington knew that faith should lie at the core of civic life, saying in his Farewell Address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." While in Havana on March 28, Pope Benedict XVI said: "believers have a contribution to make to the building up of society."
But we're not all agreed on that today, are we?
Bigoted scare tactics -- however well intentioned -- only show how desperate the opposition is getting.