Michael Gerson

Correlation is not causation. But, in this case, it doesn't seem mere coincidence. Professor John White, a political scientist at The Catholic University of America, finds Obama's decline among Catholics "in large part due to the recent debate over health care and contraception." Many Catholics have issues with their own institutions. It does not mean they want those institutions targeted by government. They are happy to criticize their own bishops -- but not to hear the views of their bishops insulted by politicians.

And HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is a continuing insult to the beliefs of traditional Catholics. Testifying at a recent House hearing, Sebelius admitted that she had consulted no constitutional precedents and asked for no legal advice from the Justice Department while making her decision on the contraceptive mandate. "Congressman," she explained, "I'm not a lawyer and I don't pretend to understand the nuances of the constitutional balancing tests." The only thing worse than indifference to religious liberty is casual, ignorant indifference to religious liberty.

I've previously argued that the Obama administration, motivated by instinctual liberalism, stumbled into this conflict with Catholic leaders. It is possible, however, Obama is making the political calculation that appealing to younger, non-religious voters is worth the alienation of traditional Catholics. Yet even if this strategy makes sense nationally, it might not be wise in, say, Pennsylvania or Ohio, where the votes of white Catholics could matter greatly.

The Catholic bishops of Pennsylvania recently sponsored a day of prayer and fasting in response to what they called the "unprecedented and gross infringement" of religious liberty by the Obama administration. The Catholic Conference of Ohio endorsed a state legislative resolution urging Obama to rescind the HHS mandate.

Is it really part of Obama's battleground-state strategy to disassemble Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic coalition in the middle of a tight re-election campaign? Did he think traditional Catholics would depart quietly?

Well, they haven't. Forty-three Catholic institutions, including the University of Notre Dame, Catholic University, and the archdioceses of New York and Washington, filed suit Monday in federal court to overturn the mandate. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called all Catholics to 14 days of "prayer, study, catechesis and public action" on religious liberty from June 21 to the Fourth of July. This is smack in the middle of the presidential season. It also, not coincidentally, starts around the Feast of St. Thomas More, who said, "I die the king's faithful servant, but God's first."

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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