1. "Flap" at Notre Dame the Work of Religious "Warriors."
After President Barack Obama recently accepted the University of Notre Dame's invitation to deliver its commencement address, extremist Catholic groups spotted an opportunity. They immediately began burning up the bandwidth on the Christian Newswire with bellicose press releases, such as one announcing plans to "turn over tables until the traitors surrender" and vowing to "recruit and train new warriors to defend Life and Truth in future culture conflicts."
That call to arms came from Randall Terry, founder of the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. Terry, who converted to Catholicism in 2005 (after divorcing his first wife), is a notorious anti-abortion zealot who has engaged in criminal activity, like trespassing at abortion clinics and arranging to have a fetus in a jar delivered to Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
Terry, along with his ally in the Cardinal Newman Society, Patrick Reilly, pushed a story of Catholic revolt into the media spotlight. With help from some Catholic bishops and activists, they convinced reporters to spin a news story about a supposedly mounting controversy. In reality, some militant activists had rallied their small army against the tide of American Catholics. The majority of Catholics voted for Obama, and the majority of Catholics believe abortion should be legal.
On campus, the editorial board of The Observer, the Notre Dame student newspaper, noted "a clear disconnect between alumni and the student body as a whole on this issue." The student body -- particularly seniors -- has deluged the paper with letters supporting Obama's appearance, while alumni have expressed opposition to the president's planned address. "This is the seniors' graduation, their last memories of Notre Dame as a student," the editorial board wrote last week. "Protestors would do well to remember this. Make your views known; healthy debate is welcomed. Photographs of aborted fetuses are not."
2. Battleground Uterus, Again.
"Abortion reduction," the buzzwords used by center-right religious activists who claim to spurn the religious right, lies at the core of the Democrats' "religious outreach" efforts during the 2006 and 2008 campaigns. It is portrayed as "common ground," but there's a distinct absence of agreement on what the term really means. For reproductive-health advocates, it's the prevention of unintended pregnancies through comprehensive sex education and effective contraception. For advocates who oppose legal abortion but have made a political decision to focus more on making it less available, the phrase means setting up obstacles and disincentives for women facing unintended pregnancies to choose an abortion.
It's the latter group of advocates that has controlled the messaging on "abortion reduction." They've portrayed themselves as both dealmakers and peacemakers. Meanwhile, anyone who doesn't share their "common ground" is an unrepentant culture warrior. Such a view was on full display in a recent op-ed by two Catholic "common ground" activists, who claimed that "abortion reduction" makes both liberals and conservatives angry because it supposedly makes their hard-line views irrelevant. As Trinity College religion scholar Mark Silk responded on his blog, "It's time to recognize that talking about common ground on abortion is creating more ill will than just going ahead and staking out some territory."
Many religious activists have already staked out territory: They have theologically based arguments for reproductive choice, contraception, and comprehensive sex education. They've got genuine common ground with the majority of Americans. Yet many of the leading Catholic "common grounders" support the position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and oppose not only abortion but also contraception. That's not common ground with the majority of Americans -- or even the majority of Catholics or the electorally prized "people of faith."
3. Abortion Reduction, Secrecy, and Obama's Religious Outreach.
"Abortion reduction" proponents claim that Obama is going to address their issue through the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP). While Obama has been clear that he prioritizes the prevention of unintended pregnancies, he appointed to his advisory council "abortion reduction" activists like Jim Wallis who advocate "the Juno option" for teenagers.
Even religious-right stalwarts like the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, who oppose most Obama policies and many Cabinet appointments, scored a meeting with OFBNP director Joshua DuBois. They reportedly chimed in with their views on "abortion reduction."
Who else is the OFBNP meeting with? The White House has not responded to my repeated requests for a list. So much for White House transparency. It's odd, too, if the secrecy is at the behest of the religious activists, who say they want their voice heard in the public square. Apparently off-the-record meetings are public enough for them.
4. Theo-Conservatism Still Pulls Us Rightward.
Although it's not yet clear what kind of influence Obama's religious advisers will have on his policy (he insists it will be science-based), his fellow Democrats still quake in their boots from pressure applied by theo-conservatives.
At the Center for Inquiry last week, Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, the chief deputy whip and a leading congressional proponent for the application of science to shape public policy, warned against assuming that the religious right is marginalized by Democratic victories. "Complacency is our worst enemy," she said as she argued that progressives should engage in what one might call evangelism for science and reason.
Despite a Democratic president and congressional majority, DeGette added that it is "going to take us years and a lot of citizen activism to pry these bad policies out of our lives" on issues like funding for stem-cell research and reproductive health. "Because we believe in science and rationality, we don't talk with the same fervor [religious right activists] do."
Although Obama supports comprehensive sex education in the Prevention First bill (which many "abortion reduction" proponents do not support because it does not contain disincentives to abortion), DeGette placed the odds of passing funding for comprehensive sex education this term at 50-50. "Even pro-choice Democrats don't want to rock boat," she said, citing a Democratic member's refusal to back an amendment that would have provided the emergency contraceptive Plan B to soldiers serving on the front lines in Iraq. Although this amendment would have protected soldiers from unintended pregnancies resulting from rape or unprotected sex, DeGette was unable to garner enough support from her fellow Democrats to introduce it.
That says a lot about the fear of possibly angering "people of faith" that strikes the hearts of Democrats and is why DeGette was urging citizen activism for reason and science. Obama could help on that front by cultivating more diversity -- and transparency -- in the OFBNP.