The President took a calculated risk when he authorized HHS Secretary Sebelius to require religious institutions to provide birth control - including the so-called "morning-after" pill - to all women in their employ through their institution's health care program.
He surely knew there would be a backlash from those who man the bully pulpits of the Church, throughout all its communions. Christian leaders have rightly seen in this move an overstepping of the legitimate bounds of government authority with respect to the practice of religion. This decision effectively empowers the government to define the terms of religious practice and to alter or reject any practices with which it does not agree. Christian leaders are right to object.
I rather suspect, though, that Mr. Obama's choice was primarily politically informed. He was looking for a way to shore up two major constituencies as his campaign for re-election ramps up toward a full head of steam.
The first, of course, is his liberal wing, those who want to remove all constraints on individual moral choice and who believe that government should destroy any obstacles that seem to impede progress toward (especially) complete sexual freedom.
The second constituency is women, including Roman Catholic women. Mr. Obama certainly knows the Catholic Church's position on birth control and abortion. But he also knows that polls show the overwhelming majority of Catholic women want and practice birth control in spite of the teaching of their Church. And a good many Catholic politicians support abortion and seem unconcerned their Church might do anything to exert its authority against them.
So let the clerics rant and fume, the President surmised; the women will vote for us.
What does such a belief say about the authority of the Church to speak into the lives of its members? Is the Church's authority - whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox - merely an authority of convenience, good for whatever people want it for, but not a controlling factor in their lives?
Young evangelicals don't like the Church, at least not in its traditional form - and, increasingly, not in its more contemporary form, either. They feel no obligation to honor its heritage or liturgy; they scorn its doctrine as irrelevant; and they flaunt its morality by living pretty much as they choose. They "love Jesus" but "hate the church," as one popular book title has it.
Mr. Obama does not believe the Church can muster an effective counterweight to his moral and political agenda. He may well be right. When the vast majority of evangelical voters in highly-evangelical South Carolina gave their support to Speaker Gingrich - a man of dubious moral conviction - it was but another sign that, for many believers, religion is a personal thing and the authority of the Church, such as it is, is merely a matter of convenience.
Which leaves Church leaders, fuming against the President's encroachment on religious liberty, singing to a choir of like-minded "leaders," while the vast majority of the "followers" of Jesus Christ are going their own way, as conveniently as they can.
Related texts: Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 13.17
A conversation starter: "Do you think that our religious leaders have any real authority in the eyes of contemporary Christians?"