Religious-Freedom Concerns Highlighted as Romney Clinches N.H. Primary

Clarity and competition come out of the New Hampshire vote.

Mitt Romney (l) and Ron Paul (c) listen while Newt Gingrich makes a point during the debate at St. Anselm College prior to the New Hampshire primary.
Mitt Romney (l) and Ron Paul (c) listen while Newt Gingrich makes a point during the debate at St. Anselm College prior to the New Hampshire primary. (photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

American voters watching the New Hampshire Republican primary saw competing visions on display with clear choices come November. When you have 19 Republican debates, there are opportunities for clarity, and one of them came on a Saturday night in New Hampshire.

During the ABC News Manchester debate Jan. 7, moderators pushed a caricature of GOP candidates, asking about contraception and “gay rights” — seemingly believing that if asked to talk about these things long enough, one of them would crack and admit secret plans to ban birth control nationally and confess to “homophobia.”

Instead, though, in the midst of a grilling of Mitt Romney, during which Romney emphasized the importance of the traditional family, Newt Gingrich interjected: “I just want to raise — since we’ve spent this much time on these issues — I just want to raise a point about the news-media bias. You don’t hear the opposite question asked: Should the Catholic Church be forced to close its adoption services in Massachusetts because it won’t accept gay couples? — which is exactly what the state has done. Should the Catholic Church be driven out of providing charitable services in the District of Columbia because it won’t give in to secular bigotry? Should the Catholic Church find itself discriminated against by the Obama administration on key delivery of services because of the bias and the bigotry of the administration?

“The bigotry question goes both ways,” Gingrich continued. “And there’s a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side. And none of it gets covered by the news media.”

Gingrich, a Catholic convert, would go on to make a valuable interjection. Previously, it had largely been former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who has been asked the questions about so-called social issues, namely abortion and marriage. In the wake of his near-tie with Romney in the Iowa caucuses last week, in fact, over-the-top headline writers insisted he was “Coming for Your Birth Control.”

And on television talking-heads shows, Fox’s Alan Colmes would be shamed into an apology for mocking how Santorum and his wife decided to mourn the loss of their premature son who died 16 years ago, while Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson would stand by his own mocking commentary on the same.

The grilling and subsequent teamwork was a clarifying moment in these debates. These candidates are not obsessed with the most personal of issues, but with defending conscience rights and a broader worldview — not one that would prescribe one candidate’s religious values, but would give voters the freedom to not have theirs violated. This issue that Gingrich articulated of faux tolerance is a key, defining issue in this year’s presidential election. As Gingrich presented it, it is, in many ways, a referendum about freedom — and religious freedom, in a particular and underappreciated way.

And, in their last debate before the first national primary for the Republican nomination to challenge Barack Obama, the candidates appeared prepared to make that argument.

Romney continued the discussion, picking up on Gingrich’s passion, using it as an opportunity to introduce his record into the debate on religious freedom.

Acknowledging the applause for Gingrich, he said, “As you can tell, the people in this room feel that Speaker Gingrich is absolutely right, and I do too. And — and I was in a state where the Supreme Court stepped in and said, ‘Marriage is a relationship required under the Constitution for — for people of the same sex to be able to marry.’ And John Adams, who wrote the Constitution, would be surprised.”

Romney went on to talk about his record as governor of Massachusetts: “As Speaker Gingrich indicated, what happened was Catholic Charities, that placed almost half of all of the adoptive children in our state, was forced to step out of being able to provide adoptive services. And the state tried to find other places to help children that we — we have to recognize that — that this decision about what we call marriage has consequence which goes far beyond a loving couple wanting to form a long-term relationship.”

“That they can do [that] within the law now,” Romney said. “Calling it a ‘marriage’ creates a whole host of problems for — for families, for the law, for … for — for the practice of … of religion, for education. Let me … let me say this: 3,000 years of human history shouldn’t be discarded so quickly.”

Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who would come in last in New Hampshire, went even further.

“This administration’s war on religion is what bothers me greatly,” Perry said. “When we see an administration that will not defend the Defense of Marriage Act; that gives their Justice Department clear instructions to go take the ministerial exception away from our churches — where that’s never happened before. When we see this administration not giving money to Catholic Charities for sexually trafficked individuals because they don’t agree with the Catholic Church on abortion, that is a war against religion. And it’s going to stop under a Perry administration.”

Whether it’s a war against religion or an insistence on driving a radical sexual ideology through government regulation and administrative contract cutting, in the case of the contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its coalition of aid to international sex-trafficking victims, this isn’t exactly tolerance. In the latter case, it’s doing somersaults to punish efficiency, and victims, because of an ideological agenda.

This is a message that must become clearer in the coming months. This administration, led by some Catholics, most notably Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, has presented entirely new challenges to conscience rights in the United States by insisting that taxpayers fund abortion and sterilization.

“There is a war on religion from the left,” says Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute and co-author of Why Obamacare Is Wrong for America. “And it is very dangerous to the institutions that make our civil society function. The Catholic Church historically has been a vital part of the safety net — providing aid for the poor, care for the sick, shelter and food for the homeless and care for mothers in need, as a few examples. The health-care law threatens to tear gaping holes in that safety net by forcing Catholic health plans to cover contraception, by denying funds to Catholic adoption agencies, and ultimately by forcing taxpayers — including Catholics — to fund abortion. This is dangerous to the very fabric of our society.”

While New Hampshire voted for Mitt Romney, who enjoyed a comfortable win, unlike his virtual tie with Santorum in Iowa, the victory does not end the primary process.

Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, Texas Congressman Ron Paul (who enjoys some expected momentum coming in with a second-place finish in New Hampshire), Santorum and Perry will all be vying to keep Romney from a South Carolina win later this month. Much of the media coverage going into South Carolina’s vote focused on Gingrich’s broadsides against Romney’s business record — which gave Romney the opportunity to present the South Carolina primary as a referendum on free enterprise.

But a significant, clarifying message emerged In New Hamphsire about the significance of this election for religious freedom, presenting, too, a model for candidates who are called on in one way or another to discuss issues of life and family in hostile territory.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.