We're told that the 2012 election is all about jobs and the economy. So-called social issues such as marriage, abortion, and religious freedom have been moved to the back burner.
Don't count on it. Social issues will also figure prominently in the coming months. President Obama has made sure of that.
The most obvious example involves the recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rule mandating that religious organizations provide health insurance that covers sterilization, contraception and drugs that induce abortion. Only the most zealous pro-choicers think people should be forced to fund abortions, even when they have moral objections to them. Not surprisingly, the mandate has sparked uproar.
In response, the president has now offered a "compromise." Instead of employers paying directly for services to which they are morally opposed, HHS will mandate that their insurance carriers provide them "free of charge."
Birth control pills, IUDS, and abortion-inducing drugs aren't free, however, so the insurance companies will offset these costs with higher premiums (even though the mandate will supposedly prohibit this). This accounting gimmick does nothing to resolve the moral problem. The New York Times admitted as much in its headline, "Rule Shift is Concession to Obama Allies," not, in other words, to opponents.
The President may have provided cover for a few allies on the religious left, such as Sister Carol Keehan,
but the US Bishops aren't buying it. In fact, rather than divide Christians over contraception, Mr. Obama has helped unify orthodox Catholics, evangelicals, and even many civil libertarians. They rightly see the HHS mandate as an attack on religious freedom. ObamaCare was already an affront to freedom itself. Now it has a sharp anti-religious edge to boot.
Forced coverage for abortion drugs? Check. Attack on religious freedom? Check. For the culture war trifecta, all we need is an attack on marriage.
In 1996, President Clinton signed the bipartisan Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It protects states from being forced to recognize same sex "marriages" performed in other states. President Obama claimed before he was elected that, as a Christian, he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. As soon as he took office, though, we learned that his view is "constantly evolving." It evolved fast, since the Justice Department has refused to defend DOMA in court, and Attorney General Eric Holder has denounced DOMA as unconstitutional and irrational.
Since most Americans think marriage means what it has always meant, the President doesn't want this to become a major campaign issue. But events may force his hand.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has just upheld District Judge Vaughn Walker's controversial decision to strike down the Prop. 8 referendum in California, which had defined marriage as between one man and one woman. The case is undoubtedly headed to the US Supreme Court, where it will become a national controversy.
While most of the media claim that this is a matter of "marriage equality," most Americans know it is about something different: whether the state will respect a universal, pre-political institution based on human nature, or will arrogate to itself the authority to redefine that institution according to left wing, secularist sensibilities.
The president often cloaks his policy views in a religious idiom. At the recent National Prayer Breakfast, he even quoted Jesus to justify his desire to raise taxes on high-income earners. But if we judge not his words but his actions, it's hard to not conclude that his administration is the most militantly secularist in history.
By the time November rolls around, President Obama will be wishing voters were only focusing on job creation and the economy.
Jay W. Richards is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Wealth, Poverty, and Morality at the Discovery Institute, and the co-author of Indivisible. He is also the author of Money, Greed, and God, The Privileged Planet, and God and Evolution.