Just as grandmasters know that controlling the center of the board is the key to winning chess, the primary objective in American politics has always been to get "freedom" on your side.
Convince the public that it's the other guy trying to impose his beliefs on you and you're nine-tenths the way home. This holds true even when the pernicious belief purportedly being forced down our throats is the oppressive idea that we should all live and let live.
And so, given the opportunity to retreat with dignity from a dispute with President Obama that puts them on the wrong side of 98% of their own church followers, the American Catholic bishops this week doubled down on their confrontation with the democratic state over women's access to contraception under the pretext of defending religious "freedom."
In words that sound suspiciously as if they'd been holy ghost-written for them by that evil Republican word-wizard, Frank Luntz, the bishops are making the potentially reckless wager that they can bluff the American people into believing that efforts to block their determination to ram Catholic orthodoxy down our throats constitutes an unconstitutional abridgment of their "freedom to worship" instead.
In a statement released by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Wednesday, the prelates said they were "strongly unified and intensely focused" in their opposition to what they considered "the various threats to religious freedom in our day."
Of most immediate concern is the administration's insistence that virtually all private health plans provide basic coverage for contraception. The exemptions provided in the law for "religious employers" such as convents, seminaries and churches, the bishops say are "arbitrarily narrow."
Yet, despite their own breathtakingly sweeping insistence that Church doctrine be given priority over all other considerations of science, medicine, public health and individual preference, the bishops would like us to know that they are the innocent victims in this dispute.
Stealing a page from Frank Luntz (or reciting the talking points he gave them) the bishops insist the controversy over birth control "is not about access to contraception" nor is it about the Catholic Church "wanting to force anybody to do anything."
Instead, say the bishops, the issue is "an unwarranted government definition of religion."
The democratic state is out-of-bounds, say the bishops, when it categorizes those who run hospitals, schools, universities - and even taco stands - as "employers" instead of "churches" and in so doing makes "religious employers" equally as subject as all other employers to duly-enacted labor and workplace laws.
What the bishops want instead is for the religious exemption they now enjoy with church employees to extend virtually anywhere Catholicism itself intersects with the larger secular society.
This includes not only to the hospitals, schools, universities and charitable organizations owned and operated by the Catholic Church - and heavily subsidized by the government, it should be said. The bishops also want a blanket exemption for any observant private Catholic employer whose "personal civil rights" the bishops contend are violated by a government mandate that instructs them to provide health insurance to their female employees to cover health services that may be morally objectionable to the individual employer himself.
While the bishops pretend the issue is "freedom," we have the Washington Post's Michael Gerson to thank for showing what a tangled, incoherent mess conservatives make of that sacred word whenever conservatives try to talk meaningfully about individual liberties while at the same time telling us we must all obey our betters and conform to the strictures of our churches and communities.
Thinking for yourself, or doing as you are told: This has always been the dividing line that separates liberals who sincerely believe in freedom from conservatives who think freedom synonymous with anarchy.
And so, Gerson says there are really only two kinds of religious liberty. The first, he says, is one that contends freedom of conscience can only be protected and advanced "by the autonomy of religious groups" like the Catholic Church.
This conservative view of religious liberty gives rights to institutions, not people, and is one in which the proper role of government is to "honor an institutional pluralism" -- meaning the ability of people "to associate, live and act in accordance with their religious beliefs, limited only by the clear requirements of public order."
The other tradition, says Gerson, is "modern liberalism" in which freedom of conscience is defined "in purely personal terms."
In this view, he says, the individual has priority over his church or community in matters of conscience and so it is the duty of the state to "intervene to protect the individual from the oppression of illiberal social institutions, particularly religious ones."
John Locke made this distinction explicit, said Gerson, when he said "Catholics can worship as they wish as individuals, but their institution is a danger to the liberal order" and so must be made to "reflect liberal ideals and values."
Quite so. Here, here. But it should be said in Locke's defense that this restriction was only true to the extent that religious institutions like the Catholic Church attempted to exert political authority, as the bishops are now, while they lay down a thick carpet of Frank Luntz-like rhetorical fog to shroud their overt political activism behind the majesty of the First Amendment and its protections of religious freedoms.
Like most conservatives, Gerson embraces a rather benign view of the exercise of political power by religious institutions, or other ideologically-motivated associations, that are structurally undemocratic, authoritarian, and hierarchical.
The Founding Fathers were not quite so sanguine about the unhindered exercise of such ecclesiastical power. They knew from their own experience and study of political history that for republics to endure, a wall of separation between democratic institutions and those fundamentally undemocratic, like churches, was often prudent.
Fifty years after the Supreme Court declared laws against contraception to be unconstitutional, the Catholic bishops and like-minded reactionaries have re-grouped around the idea that an employer-based health care system, such as the one that still persists in the US, violates the religious "freedom" of religious organizations and religiously devout employers whenever it mandates employers to help finance services which their moral beliefs prohibit.
Yet, a quick review of the history of this conflict reveals that hostility to birth control runs a good deal deeper than the mere financing of it, even if the theological opposition to contraception by the Church leadership is far from universal.
In today's New York Times, Seth Meehan, fellow at Boston College's Clough Center and author of "From Patriotism to Pluralism: How Catholics Initiated the Repeal of Birth Control Restrictions in Massachusetts," recalls the Church's early efforts to ban birth control in Boston.
According to Meehan, in 1948 Boston's Cardinal Richard Cushing led public efforts against Referendum No. 4, which was a statewide ballot measure to relax the state's then-existing ban on contraception.
Using both the pulpit and the public air waves, the Catholic leadership argued that birth control was "still against God's law" while Cushing himself defined contraception as "anti-social and anti-patriotic, as well as absolutely immoral." In the end, says Meehan, 57% of voters rejected the referendum.
Nearly 20 years later, Cardinal Cushing had a change of heart. Just prior to the Supreme Court's 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut that rendered the controversy moot, Cushing entered into what he called a "friendly discussion with those whose views of life and its meaning are different than his own." One of those with whom the Cardinal "adopted a conciliatory tone" on the Church's objections to birth control, was a young state representative from the Boston suburb of Brookline named Michael Dukakis.
As Meehan reports, in 1963 Cushing told an unidentified radio caller that the existing ban on birth control was "bad law" because neither he nor anyone else had a right "to impose my thinking, which is rooted in religious thought, on those who do not think as I do."
The anonymous caller turned out to be the executive director of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts. And it was the first time, said Meehan, that the Cardinal publicly announced a willingness to accept revisions to the state's contraception law.
When a bill that would allow physicians to prescribe birth control to "any married person" was introduced in 1965, it passed the Massachusetts House 136 to 80 after a very similar bill had been defeated the previous year, 119 to 97.
The difference was Cushing's endorsement and his belief that "freedom" in this context meant that Catholics should "not seek to impose by law their moral view on other members of society."