What is most striking about the showdown over contraceptive freedom is not the political victory that President Obama earned by standing up for women's reproductive rights, although his Republican adversaries are certainly helping him to make the most of it. Those adversaries don't seem to realize they have fallen into a trap, whether the White House set them up intentionally or not.
While the Catholic bishops and their allies on the religious right insist that this is an argument over the First Amendment, their true, longstanding purpose now stands revealed to the public. They would begin by imposing their dogma on every woman unlucky enough to work for an employer who shares it -- an agenda that is deeply unpopular even among the Catholic faithful, let alone the rest of the American electorate. Then they would impose it on everyone, as the theorists of the religious right suggest every time they deny the separation of church and state.
The bishops have nothing to lose except their flock, whose respect for the hierarchy has plunged anyway over its resistance to reform and its failure to punish abuses far graver and more sinful than contraception. If they had to stand for election, not many of them would be left standing. And if they had to face a referendum on this current matter, they would lose resoundingly to the president, according to the latest survey data.
In a poll taken last Friday for the Coalition to Protect Women's Health Care, Public Policy Polling found that 57 percent of Catholic voters endorse the Obama "compromise" that would ensure continued prescription birth control for women working in religious institutions, without requiring those institutions to pay directly for that coverage. Only 29 percent sided with the bishops, the religious right and the Republicans , while 5 percent actually think the religious institutions should pay for contraceptive coverage regardless of their doctrine. The cross-tabs of the PPP poll show that Latino Catholics, Catholic independent voters and Catholic women support the Obama solution by wide margins. (The most recent poll by Fox News Channel shows the same overwhelming approval for the president's position among the general public, with 61 percent of voters on his side versus only 34 percent against.)
Those statistics are no threat to the bishops, of course, but represent a profound problem for the Republican leaders and candidates who have signed up for this male geriatric crusade against modernity. Mitt Romney, for instance, seems to believe that by stoking evangelical paranoia about a supposed "war on religion" by Obama, he will subdue evangelical paranoia about his Mormonism (which, by the way, expressly permits birth control). His pandering commenced when he announced his 2012 candidacy, but grew still more intense this week when he accused the president of perpetrating an "assault" on religion.
Such tactics are unlikely to placate the prejudices arrayed against Romney -- and even if they did, he will pay a very high price next fall for joining the angriest and most extreme culture warriors on this issue. Congressional Republicans will be courting the same danger if, as promised, they propose legislation that would overturn the Obama compromise and deprive women working for religious institutions of equal rights to contraceptive services.
The president should hold fast. He has proved that it is possible to uphold the principle of full access to birth control, which has been the pro-family social policy of the American majority for half a century, while respecting the religious convictions of all Americans. The wild ranting of his enemies is only helping him now -- and may yet ruin them in November.