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This Week in God

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at an unexpected political/theological fight that may have 2012 electoral implications. It's one of those rare controversies in which a high-profile conservative policymaker is facing intense criticism from religious leaders on a high-profile moral issue.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been on the defensive since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized his agenda and his religious justification for punishing the poor. The right-wing lawmaker addressed the issue this week at Georgetown University, where several dozen Jesuit scholars and other faculty members had also condemned Ryan's budget. He was met by throngs of protesters -- including "GOP Je$us," who read "Blessed are the rich" from the "Me-Attitudes" -- before arguing that his "reforms" would actually benefit those struggling most. Ryan's pitch included claims that simply weren't true.

But what about the electoral implications? What happens when the political debate over moral issues goes beyond marriage and reproductive health, to include Republican efforts to punish those Americans struggling most? Eliza Newlin Carney reported yesterday on the landscape.

A widening rift between House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Catholic bishops and activists over federal spending captures the power and unpredictability of the Catholic vote this year. [...]

White, politically moderate Catholics will hold the cards this time, said University of Akron political science professor John Green. Although Latino Catholics tend to vote Democratic and highly observant Catholics generally side with the GOP, "middle-of-the-road Catholics are very much up for grabs," Green said, noting this bloc is well-represented in battleground states such as Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Wisconsin. [...]

"Many of those centrist Catholics would probably agree with Catholic intellectuals and with bishops that there are a lot of things wrong with Paul Ryan's budget from a Catholic perspective," he said.

For political observers who immediately connect the Catholic vote with contraception, it's time to consider these issues beyond a narrow culture-war perspective. Ryan appears to be learning this lesson the hard way.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Rick Perlstein highlights the right's ongoing efforts to make "secularism" a dirty word in 2012 (thanks to reader R.P. for the tip).

* Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, who caused quite a stir with a homily comparing the president to Hitler, is under intense pressure from the faculty at the University of Notre Dame (thanks to reader R.B.).

* And religious right leader Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, flirted with Birtherism this week, calling questions about President Obama's birthplace "legitimate." Perkins remains an influential figure in Republican politics.