When the GOP defends "religious freedom," ultraconservatives see a moral crusade, while moderates see a defense of citizens' rights.
The term "culture war" has been in the news lately, describing a shift in political focus from unemployment and taxes to birth control and gay marriage. Some say it's because the economy is improving (although we have a long way to go). Others, like me, say it's because it's a perennially important discussion that will never go away. But something peculiar is happening this election season: Instead of putting their moral cards out on the table, conservatives are couching their cultural crusades in the libertarian language of "big government" oppression.
Take the latest fight over whether birth control will be fully covered by the Affordable Care Act. Most Republicans (aside from Rick Santorum, of course) won't say outright that birth control is wrong. Instead, they say they object to the government mandate. This tactic has been used before, in the cases of Plan B and the HPV vaccine, but the degree of public political theater has reached a fever pitch this time, with two Senate bills using the guise of "religious freedom"—which would apply not only to religious institutions, but to individual bosses—to deny women birth control and any other medication to which their employers object.
The shift in strategy is both understandable and disingenuous. Birth control is a thoroughly uncontroversial issue, even among religious women—virtually all sexually active Catholic women have used birth control at some point, and 65 percent of registered voters support the new mandate. Conservatives know they can't win over the general public by wholly denouncing a medical the lion's share of their constituents employ, so they've spun the issue toward the more relevant rhetoric of "big government" opposition.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio strategically named his bill the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would override the Obama administration's requirements that health insurance cover birth control. This isn't a moral crusade, Rubio assured us, but a "common sense bill" assuring "the government can't force religious organizations" to bend to their whims. Just yesterday, Missouri Senator Roy Blunt introduced a bill that went even further: It would allow CEOs to refuse to cover any service they find morally objectionable, whether birth control, HIV medicine, or any other medication or procedure. Even the Catholic church is having trouble admitting they're fully against contraception; Bishop William Lori told the Huffington Post that "[r]eligious freedom is a fundamental freedom," and that "no one would ever dispute the ready availability of so-called reproductive services in our society for anyone who wants it."
An all-male House panel (with all-male witnesses) faithfully echoed this rhetoric at a hearing Thursday afternoon. "This is not about women," one witness said. "This is not about contraception. This is about religious freedom, this is about religious liberties." Committee Chairman Darrell Issa agrees.
Meanwhile, New Jersey governor Chris Christie has vowed to veto the same-sex marriage bill recently passed in the New Jersey legislature. Christie won't come out and say he's against gay marriage—he just thinks "the people" should decide directly whether they want it. Like Rubio and Blunt, he's reframing what was previously a staple of the culture war into a question of citizens' liberty, of normal people exercising their rights to weigh in.
Christie has seen the gay marriage opinion polls; he knows that 53 percent of the country, and 54 percent of his state, supports same-sex weddings, so like the anti-birth control pols, he's cloaking the real issue. In each case, the GOP is using the much more popular language of "government control" to smack down progressive social policy while still nodding to the far-right wing. Ultraconservative voters see a politician fighting a righteous moral crusade, while moderates see a politician standing up for the rights of businesses and individuals.
Next to these rationalizations, Rick Santorum comes off as the most honest one of the pack. After all, he's plainly stated that he thinks both homosexuality and birth control are sins. But if he wants to ride out his sudden surge in the polls, it may behoove him to take a cue from his peers. Most mainstream conservatives have managed to sidestep blatant moral judgments while still wielding power over the lives of women and gays with a more palatable "freedom" message. Let's hope people see this liberty-posturing for what it is: just another old-fashioned culture war.