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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama Should Honor Works of Faith

I trust that President Obama read E. J. Dionne, Jr.’s Sunday WaPo column, “Contraception and the cost of culture wars,” in which he argued that the President crafted a good compromise, albeit a little late, exempting religious institutions and their affiliates from being obligated to pay for contraceptives.
Many progressives disagree, citing equally-persuasive arguments that it should be a collective obligation of a sensible society. On balance, it appears to be a workable compromise that most reasonable people in both parties can live with.
But the real gold in Dionne’s column is in his eloquent defense of the much-battered Catholic Church’s good works, particularly with respect to alleviating the suffering of economic hardship.

Those of us who are liberal Catholics have remained in the church for reasons beyond tribal loyalties or a desire to honor the traditions of our parents and grandparents. At the heart of the love many of us have for the church — despite our frustrations over its abysmal handling of the pedophilia scandal and its reluctance to grant women the rights they are due — is a profound respect for the fact on so many questions that count, Catholicism walks its talk and harnesses its faith to the good works the Gospel demands.
When it comes to lifting up the poor, healing the sick, assisting immigrants and refugees, educating the young (especially in inner cities), comforting orphaned and abandoned children, and organizing the needy to act in their own interest, the church has been there with resources and an astoundingly committed band of sisters, priests, brothers and lay people. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services make the words of Jesus come alive every day.

Critics of the role of the Catholic church will have no trouble enumerating its sins against humanity down though history. But all the while the quiet good works by rank and file church activists to help the poor and oppressed noted by Dionne have benefited millions around the world. it’s important to acknowledge that, even when church scandals dominate the headlines. In the context of the current contraception controversy, Dionne adds:

For liberals who sided with the church in this controversy, the most vexing problem with the original exemption on contraception is that it defined “religious” so narrowly that the reality that these organizations go out of their way to serve non-Catholics was held against them. Their Gospel-inspired work was defined as non-religious. This violated the very essence of Christian charity and the church’s social justice imperatives.
…What bothers liberal Catholics about the arguments advanced by some of our conservative friends is that the Catholic right seems so eager to focus the church’s witness to the world on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research and, now, perhaps, contraception that they would effectively, if not necessarily intentionally, relegate the church’s social justice work and teaching to second-class status.
Liberal Catholics were proud to stand with conservatives in defending the church’s religious liberty rights in carrying out its social and charitable mission. Now, we’d ask conservatives to consider that what makes the Gospel so compelling — especially for the young, many of whom are leaving the church — is the central role it assigns to our responsibilities to act on behalf of the needy, the left-out and the abandoned.
And we’d ask our non-Catholic liberal friends to think about this, too. Many of us agreed that broad contraception coverage was, as a general matter, a good thing, and we shared their concern for women’s rights. But we were troubled that some with whom we usually agree seemed to relish a fight with the church and defined any effort to accommodate its anxieties as “selling out.”

Dionne applauds Obama for striking a reasonable compromise, but also for the strong stand he took as a young politician in 2006 defending “religion in the public square” and opposing stereotypes of religious people as intolerant fanatics.
President Obama would do well to celebrate the great works of the Catholic church at a time when many Catholics are feeling dissed by the negative fallout of scandals and unfair stereotypes. But it’s not just the Catholic church. “Prosperity Gospel” protestant churches, many with preachers living extremely high on the hog and often reactionary politics, get tremendous media exposure, while thousands of smaller churches with great programs serving the disadvantaged and destitute in their communities are overshadowed. Non-Christian faiths have also made a difference for the better in their communities in numerous instances.
It’s important that religious institutions should be recognized and uplifted for their charitable works, and the president who makes a special effort to do so could reap a bountiful harvest on election day.

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