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As coverage of the contraception mandate finally enters mainstream discourse and the standoff between the government and the Church escalates, it’s worth taking a few moments to flay some persistent red herrings about what this battle is  not .

First, this fight is not a referendum on whether one personally likes the Catholic Church. Love the Church, disdain the Church, be apathetic; it doesn’t matter. As a corollary, this is not a test of one’s agreement with Church teaching on birth control. No one is demanding members of the public sign off on lines of the Catechism—the Church is merely asking for the right to hold what it believes without external coercion and to think and act in a manner consistent with its own conviction (paging atheistic libertarians and pluralist liberals: what say you?). Indeed, this fight can be phrased in entirely secular terms and still be urgent: do you object to a government forcing a religious organization to commit what it considers a serious sin? If not, please elaborate your political philosophy, because it seems to have more in common with, shall we say, regimes with a tendency to eschew constitutions and human rights than it does with the American social contract.

Second, this battle does not revolve around who can wield  ad hominem  attacks or the  tu quoque  fallacy to greater effect. Yes, as we’ve been constantly reminded, many Catholics (or, at least, people who claim to be Catholics when Gallup calls) use contraception anyway , in defiance of their Church’s teaching. A recent poll even shows strong  support among “Catholics”  for the mandate itself. It’s an embarrassing and unfortunate internal problem, yes, but why does it have bearing on the principles at stake? If obedience or disobedience determined normative moral injunctions, how would any code of behavior be left standing?

Third, this fight must not be about “retribution.” Yes, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops very publicly opposed the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Yes, to get even farther away from this issue (but as critics love to point out) the Church sometimes failed to report abusive priests to the proper legal authorities. These points are irrelevant—unless you seriously want to reduce public life to an endless struggle to “help your friends and hurt your enemies,” a view which was rejected  a rather long time ago .

Nor is this battle really about providing critical health care. This, it is true, is a larger topic, and a bit thornier than the other efforts at misdirection, but suffice it to say that if defenders of the contraception mandate believed their own rhetoric, we could expect to see some of their fervor applied towards also advocating dental care mandates, ophthalmologist mandates, x-ray mandates, and a laundry list of other (as yet uncovered)  “preventive services.”

Finally, to friends and allies on the right: this battle is not simply another opportunity to ding the president you love to hate, nor another passing whistle stop in the campaign to derail Obamacare. The president ultimately bears the blame for this mandate, to be sure, and his moral culpability is heavy. But it is a mistake to turn this into a political game: that kind of reaction is exactly how bureaucrats have tried to paint the Church’s opposition—another part of that vast right-wing conspiracy springing into action on cue.

As for the larger health care overhaul: it’s a separate issue at the moment. Let the Supreme Court consider the nuances of the Interstate Commerce Clause, and voters the wisdom of its mountains of additional red tape. But, when discussing the mandate, it is imperative not to get sucked into a spiraling argument about everything wrong with the country, this administration, or “big government.” For when it comes to the mandate, our concern is not with that classic trope of American discourse,  per se , but with the manifestation of a novel and highly specific threat to liberty. It’s as clearly identifiable as it is willfully dictatorial, and that should be enough of a conversation starter.

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