Obama’s Anglican Solution to the Catholic Contraception Problem

Why President Obama's middle way should give his foes pause

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Henry VIII and Barack Obama

In the ways Washington measures time, it took too long, but in the end President Obama got it right. The controversy over whether Roman Catholic institutions such as hospitals or schools (not churches, which are already exempt) would be required to provide employees insurance plans that covered contraception offered us a telling election-year culture-war skirmish.

“We are all Catholics now,” Mike Huckabee told the Conservative Political Action Committee annual meeting (the one in which Mitt Romney declared himself “severely” conservative), suggesting that Protestant social conservatives see the contraceptive issue as a path to mutually convenient pre-Reformation unity.

My own view is that conservatives who think Obama’s (admittedly poor) performance on the issue is a source of hope for deposing the President in November are probably wrong.

But then I would think that. I am an Episcopalian, an American adherent to the Anglican tradition, and Obama’s compromise is decidedly Anglican. The President’s solution of having insurers, not the Catholic institutions, provide the coverage separately is a wise discover of the via media, or middle way, which Anglican divines have long defined as a central strength of the Church of England’s Protestant tradition.

(MOREMeacham: There Is No ‘War on Religion’)

Conceived in a struggle between Henry VIII and the papacy for power on earth, Anglicanism has long charted its theological and cultural way between the rigidities of Roman Catholicism and of more inflexible Protestant traditions. Based on the historic pillars of scripture, reason and tradition, the Anglican vision has proved to be durable and largely tolerant of dissent and difference. It has preserved the central claims of Christianity without fomenting a sense of militancy or prideful certitude. For some, that capacity to dwell easily in the twilight between fundamentalism and atheism, accompanied by the American church’s progressive politics on divorce and sexuality, has been a sign of the tradition’s weakness. In the Prescott Bush era of the mid-20th century my church was often described as “the Republican Party at prayer.” No one would say that about the Episcopal Church in the era of Senator Bush’s grandson, George W. Bush.

Yet I believe an Anglican sensibility of core conviction coupled with generous-minded pragmatism about the realities of the world is also wonderfully American and wonderfully useful. Life is precarious, compromise common. Elizabeth I is said to have remarked that she did not wish to make windows into men’s souls; it is the kind of thing Obama might say.

The President understands ambiguity. “The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm,” Obama told graduates at Notre Dame in 2009. “The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem-cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships can be relieved. The question then is, How do we work through these conflicts?”

The answer depends on the issue and the hour. The most successful politicians are often those who can find that via media, that middle way. The fact that Obama managed to do so — again, later than he should have, but there we are — is a reminder not of his weaknesses as a President but of his strengths as a politician.

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