The Know Nothings ride again

Campaign 2012

When I was in fourth grade there was a presidential election going on: Kennedy vs. Nixon. Though it seems quaint now, the Democratic candidate's religion was held against him, especially in Southern cities like mine. The rumor going around the lunchroom was that if Kennedy was elected, he'd make us go to school on Saturdays. I'm not sure what Saturday school had to do with democracy or Catholicism, but it sounded scary. Almost as scary as the current rumor going around that if Rick Santorum is elected, he will somehow enforce his church's view of birth control on the nation at large.

The issue of contraception, which retreated to intermural church debate long ago, has mysteriously developed into a perfect storm. First, the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle, then the Health and Human Services mandate requiring religious groups to provide reproductive services to female employees. Out of those controversies rose a public concern about women's access to contraception in general, and female U.S. representatives stormed out of a congressional hearing, and a Santorum backer made a joke about aspirin (which I remember from high school-we thought it was funny then), and a respectable left-of-center journal like The New Republic began furrowing its brow over "The Increasingly Disturbing War Against Women's Rights." What? How did a discussion about private contributions and government coercion become a campaign to force women back into the kitchen?

We've been framed. It might have been an elaborate setup, as Dick Morris suggested: a strategic retreat by the left, backing away from the abortion battle (which they're losing), in order to rally around an issue with almost universal support. Such universal support, in fact, that it isn't even an issue.

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Whether deliberate or not, this development is extremely unfortunate. Santorum hasn't helped himself, either, by his earlier public musings on the morality of birth control, or his wordy defense in the current crisis. When running for president, you must speak to the broadest possible constituency and keep your message to a few easily understandable points. The people don't want philosophy unless it hits them where they live.

Contraception hits a significant voting bloc where they live. And even though the present controversy is laughably transparent, it could do a lot of harm. Back in the 1850s, hyper-nativism and anti-Catholicism gave rise to the Know Nothing Party, which enjoyed considerable success in New England during its brief heyday. The anti-Catholic side of Know-Nothingism seems to be staging a comeback, with this vital difference: The part played by hysterical Protestants in 1850 has been taken over by cynical, media-savvy secularists in 2012.

We'll have to say this over and over and over again: The current controversy is not about women's access to birth control at all. It's about an unconstitutional abridgement of religious freedom. It's about making people pay for something they never had to before, even when it goes against their religious beliefs. It's been observed that the only freedom the left will defend to the last ditch is sexual freedom. When that's all we have, we'll all be slaves.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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