|Santorum, a Catholic, is stunningly out of step with Catholic social policy, argues Paul Rosenberg [Reuters]
The last few weeks have witnessed a sort of sea change in the American presidential race - a sea change that will, of necessity, affect the whole world. Of course, in politics, where a week can be a lifetime, the November elections are still impossibly far away. And yet - barring something like a eurozone financial collapse, or Israel going to war with Iran - the Republicans may very well just have just decisively defeated themselves.
The symbolic moment that made this abundantly clear occurred during half-time of the Super Bowl, in an advertisement by Chrysler - the smaller of the two US car companies bailed out during the darkest early days of the Great Recession. The ad featured Clint Eastwood, who helped write it.
"It's halftime. Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half," the ad began. "It's halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they're hurting. And they're all wondering what they're going to do to make a comeback. And we're all scared, because this isn't a game," the ad continued. "The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again... All that matters now is what's ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And, how do we win?
"Detroit's showing us it can be done. And, what's true about them is true about all of us. This country can't be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it's halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin."
Chrysler itself said the ad was apolitical. Eastwood is a prominent cultural icon who can't recall if he ever voted for a Democrat for president, and was reportedly considered as a running mate for George H W Bush in the 1988 election. The bailout that allowed Chrysler to survive was initiated by Bush's son, outgoing President George W Bush, in early January, 2009, and was expanded in April and May by President Obama, when the amount initially provided proved inadequate. (A brief, but more detailed description of the bailout can be found here.)
"I didn't want there to be 21 per cent unemployment," Bush told the annual gathering of auto dealers, just two days after the Super Bowl ad aired. "I didn't want to gamble. I didn't want history to look back and say, ‘Bush could have done something but chose not to do it.' And so I said, ‘no depression.'"
So, the bailout itself was bipartisan. The ad was non-partisan. And yet, GOP super-strategist Karl Rove - better known as "Bush's Brain" - quickly slammed it as a political ad, and his interpretation was widely shared... for good reason. As they say down South, "a stuck pig squeals", and the GOP today is squealing its guts out, like one big fat stuck pig. The post-Bush GOP is in deep denial about the Bush GOP and the pre-Bush GOP. It is even in deep denial about itself. It's not just Mitt Romney: The entire post-Bush GOP is well to the right of where it was just a few years ago. And so it's no wonder that it tries to pretend that Bush never existed. Certainly, Bush is not to blame for Obama's terrible economy, Bush's tax cuts and wars had nothing to do with our massive federal debt, and no one - except Ron Paul, perhaps - talks about Bush's role in bailing out the banks - or the auto companies.
Abraham Lincoln, Republican socialist
But it's not just that today's GOP has turned its back on its own profound responsibility for the terrible mess this country is in - that might be expected. It has also turned its back on what previously had been shared American values, decisions and practices.
"If you make a bad decision in business, you ought to pay," Bush told the auto dealers. "The problem is, sometimes circumstances get in the way of philosophy." For that rather commonplace, common-sense admission, today's GOP would denounce him as a "socialist". It's easier simply to forget him.
But by those standards, every Republican president in history is a socialist. They all used government money to help businesses in trouble - and some who weren't in trouble, too. The very first Republican congress and administration was as socialist as all get-out. In 1862, they passed the first of the Morrill Land Grant Acts, funding public state colleges; and the first of the Pacific Railway Acts, funding the transcontinental railroad. The private sector alone was clearly incapable of taking up either of these momentous tasks, and yet, these profoundly socialist acts were the foundations of enormous private wealth that was generated over the next several generations of staggering growth.
More recently, Ronald Reagan passed numerous tax increases after his initial tax cuts initiated an era of ballooning deficits - any one of which would have been enough to disqualify him from national office in today's GOP. He also struck a deal to preserve Social Security, while his successor, George H W Bush, responded to the savings & loan crisis with a bailout later estimated at half a trillion dollars.
Today's GOP sees the Chrysler Super Bowl ad as partisan because they have unilaterally abandoned the once-shared goal of building American prosperity. And that is a recipe for political irrelevance. No one forced them to do this. They have freely chosen to turn their backs on American industry, and on the United States itself. It's only natural if the United States should return the favor.
From the war on Detroit to the war on women
But that's only part of the story. Call it the Romney part - not because it's exclusively advocated by Romney (nothing could be further from the truth), but because his enormous wealth and detachment from middle-class America makes him a poster-boy for this particular disconnect. And because the bubble bursting on this particular fantasy seems to have coincided with the bursting of Romney's campaign bubble.
First, Romney's limited, somewhat botched tax-return release called attention to his own coddled existence. Then the release of strong employment figures from January - solidifying a months-long trend - sent a sharp warning that the economy was recovering just in time to wreck havoc with his strategy of condescending attacks on Obama's economic record. Then came the Super Bowl ad, followed two days later by Rick Santorum's three-state sweep of Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
This coincided with the growing furor over contraception and the Catholic bishops, signaling the re-emergence of 1990s-style culture war issues and the Santorum part of the story. But here, as the ground shifts radically from abortion to birth control, the Republican abandonment of consensus politics may be even more profound - as the recent Komen Foundation catastrophe should have made obvious from the start. Initially, the Beltway framing of the story made it appear bad for the Democrats (Beltway framing always does that.) First, the punditocracy echoed the rightwing frame of Obama waging a "war on religion", and backed it up by arguing that the Obama administration had been politically inept as well.
But the "war on religion" meme was palpably absurd on multiple levels - not least because 98 per cent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lives, not to mention the fact that Obama's original compromise position, requiring Catholic hospitals and college (but not churches) to pay for employees' birth control was broadly in sync with laws in 28 states. DePaul, the nation's largest Catholic university, offers birth control coverage, for example. The Catholic church has been living with these requirements for roughly a decade now, never previously raising such a hysterical, over-the-top hue and cry.
Finally, as Talking Points Memo and others explained, the claim that a constitutional issue of religious freedom was at stake flew directly in the face of a 1990 Supreme Court decision (Employment Division v. Smith) authored by conservative icon Antonin Scalia (a Catholic). If anyone had launched a "war on religion", it was Scalia, not Obama. Obama was simply making healthcare policy in the world that Scalia had made.
"Obama seems to be slowly, painfully coming to terms with the bitter truth that compromising with the uncompromising is a recipe for pragmatic failure and political defeat."
By week's end, Obama announced a new accommodation - having insurance companies pay for birth control coverage - which met both sides' core requirements. It was embraced by both the Catholic Health Association and Planned Parenthood.
"The Catholic Health Association is very pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions," said Sister Carol Keehan, the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association.
"The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed. We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished. The unity of Catholic organisations in addressing this concern was a sign of its importance. This difference has at times been uncomfortable but it has helped our country sort through an issue that has been important throughout the history of our great democracy."
No doubt, Beltway pundits will misread the fact that the Catholic bishops, who initially greeted Obama's accommodation plan as "a first step in the right direction", belatedly denounced Obama's plan. The bishops are clearly out of step here, as Keehan's statement indicates, but the (overwhelmingly male) pundits will think this signals that Obama has failed.
They will be wrong, of course - unless Obama foolishly believes them. This has repeatedly been Obama's problem in the past. But ever since the debt-limit debacle last summer, Obama seems to be slowly, painfully coming to terms with the bitter truth that compromising with the uncompromising is a recipe for pragmatic failure and political defeat. He doesn't have to keep trying this failed strategy over and over and over again - particularly when he has a viable alternative: In this case, the nuns who work in health care in place of the bishops, who don't.
Gospel Christians vs. End-Times Christians
As already mentioned, there are multiple levels of deception here, overlying the emergent truth. Most basically, there's the whole "war on religion" meme, a favourite lie of the religious right in one form or other, at least since they rallied behind divorced Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan (whose White House schedule ran on astrology) to defeat born-again Baptist deacon Jimmy Carter.
In 1976, many had backed Carter, not realising he was an old-style progressive evangelical, with values rooted in the Gospels and echoing the Hebrew prophets, rather than a Cold War evangelical with ideology rooted in Revelations and end-times speculations. Because the Gospels teach redemption and forgiveness, the Carter-style Gospel-centred evangelicals rarely openly question the religiosity of the end-times evangelicals, but the end-timers never cease for long in attacking the Gospel-focussed believers as ungodly. They never forgave Carter for being a Gospel guy, and they're equally incensed at Obama for precisely the same reason (plus a whole lot more, of course).
On February 2, Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, and he did what Gospel-based Christians do when they talk about the social realm. He talked about faith and justice. He cited the examples of "Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel" and said, "the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it, and called for bold action - sometimes in the face of indifference, sometimes in the face of resistance".
He went on to say,
"When I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren't discriminating against those who are already sick, or making sure that unscrupulous lenders aren't taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody. But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbours in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God's command to 'love thy neighbor as thyself.'"
I know the version of that Golden Rule is found in every major religion and every set of beliefs - from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to the writings of Plato.
"When I talk about shared responsibility, it's because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it's hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I'm willing to give something up as somebody who's been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that's going to make economic sense.
"But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus's teaching that 'for unto whom much is given, much shall be required'. It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who've been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others."
As reported by the Washington Post, Ralph Reed, former gambling lobbyist and head of the Christian Coalition, said that for Obama to tie his tax policy to Jesus's teachings "is theologically threadbare and straining credulity".
"I felt like it was over the line and not the best use of the forum," Reed told the Post. "It showed insufficient level of respect for what the office of the president has historically brought to that moment."
Spoken like a true gambling lobbyist... I mean Christian.
Santorum's Catholic anti-Catholicism
Reed was not alone, however. GOP hopeful Rick Santorum attacked Obama as well, according to the Huffington Post. "He made the claim that his policies of taxing the rich is authorised by the Bible, that he is doing what is biblically called for by taxing the rich, by having the government tax the rich. Now, I've read the Bible, and I must have missed that passage," Santorum was quoted as telling reporters. "This is an administration that attacks religion, and then tries to cloak itself in religion in order to take your money."
But in the real world - outside the GOP/Fox News/1 per cent/Beltway bubble - it's Santorum (a Catholic) who is stunningly out of step with Catholic social policy. This was noted by blogger Juan Cole, a world-renowned Middle East expert, who necessarily has a significant understanding of religious social doctrines in the region. In a post entitled, "Top Ten Catholic Teachings Santorum Rejects while Obsessing about Birth Control", Cole cited Pope John Paul II's opposition to war against Iraq; the Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty; the Conference of Catholic Bishops' denunciation of Bush's idea of 'preventive war' (along with the Pope); their support for universal health care for all Americans; for increasing the federal minimum wage; for welfare for all needy families (calling for "a minimum national welfare benefit that will permit children and their parents to live in dignity" and saying, "A decent society will not balance its budget on the backs of poor children"); and their support for the idea that "the basic rights of workers must be respected - the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organisation and joining of unions…"; as well as other groups of bishops demanding the withdrawal of Israel from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967; attacking the criminalisation of undocumented immigrants generally and Arizona state law's specific treatment of immigrants.
Of course, one might argue that these positions are doctrinally less central to the Catholic Church - even though there are clear Biblical precedents for them, usually much more explicit and uncontested than one can find for birth control - or even abortion. (See, for example, "Why Abortion is Biblical" by Brian Elroy McKinley. Among other things, McKinley cited Exodus 21:22 saying that the penalty for causing a miscarriage is a civil fine - it is not a criminal offense, much less murder - while passages in Ecclesiastes [4:1-3 and 6:3-5] say it is better not to have been born, or to have died in the womb, than to live an unfulfilled life.) But regardless of all else, the Catholic hierarchy itself argues that all of these positions derive from its faith, not from political considerations. One simply cannot coherently argue against all these positions - as Santorum repeatedly has done - while claiming that those who listen to the Church on the vast majority of issues are "anti-religious" because they part with it over birth control. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If Obama is anti-Catholic, then Santorum is, too.
Even if the bishops themselves choose to overlook Santorum's cafeteria Catholic approach to their own moral teachings, joining together in a league of religious hypocrisy, the American people should not be bamboozled. The strongest moral arguments are those supported by broad consistency and multiple lines of argument, not those riddled with exceptions and special considerations. Raised voices and overheated rhetoric do not compensate for inconsistencies - they only serve to underscore them.
Birth control is not abortion
If it were merely a matter of religious hypocrisy versus plain old honesty, honesty wouldn't stand a chance. All things being equal, it never does. But in this case, all things are not equal. As mentioned above, the issue here is birth control, not abortion. And that makes all the difference in the world.
"The Catholic hierarchy ... which continues to argue ideologically that healthcare is disease prevention and pregnancy is not a disease, ergo birth control can't be healthcare."
A polling memo from Lake Research Partners last May said, "Americans are tired of the contentious, polarising abortion debate. There is considerable consensus around getting away from the focus on abortion and having a broader discussion on reproductive health, which includes birth control, comprehensive sex education, and improving maternal and childbirth outcomes. There is broad consensus across demographic and political groups." For example: "Americans strongly believe in the importance of family planning services as a basic preventive measure. Over eight in ten (84 percent) say family planning services, including birth control and contraception, are important to basic preventive health care services, and two-thirds (67 percent) express intensity around this idea."
This contrasts sharply with the out-of-step views of the Catholic hierarchy, which continues to argue ideologically that healthcare is disease prevention and pregnancy is not a disease, ergo birth control can't be healthcare. The Church remains quite impressed with its logic, primarily because Jesuit priests can't get pregnant. As the Lake memo indicates, the overwhelming majority of Americans disagree.
Regardless of whether the issue is rebuilding the US economy or caring for the health and welfare of its female majority, the Republican Party now seems implacably fixated on wildly unpopular and impractical policies, bolstered by oceans of secretive cash. Romney or Santorum, or any other front-person, it makes no difference in the end. They've spent the last three-plus years fighting against the rebuilding and reuniting of America. Do not be surprised if America rejects them in the end.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.