…as Christians of various traditions we object to a “naked public square,” stripped of religious arguments and religious believers. We do not seek a “sacred public square” either, which gives special privileges and benefits to religious citizens. Rather, we seek a civil public square, where all citizens can make their contribution to the common good. At our best, we might call this an American public square.
This characterization matches the Bishops’ consistent talking point that the current debate is not about the details of birth control policy, but rather about whether religious freedom should exist. The implication, of course, is that anyone who disagrees with their particular interpretation of this policy is actually objecting to the First Amendment.
But this is a false dichotomy. Yes, there are some people who think the public square should be “stripped of religious arguments and religious believers,” but it’s hardly an overwhelming view, and it’s certainly not the view of many of us who have offered nuanced critiques of the Bishops’ position. To suggest as much is to simply dismiss legitimate questions without answering them.
Even more interesting though, is the second part of the quote in which the Bishops alternately reject the idea of a “sacred public square” that gives “special privileges” to religious citizens. But this is exactly the language many perceptive observers use to characterize the Bishops’ position. Ed Kilgore lays it out well:
What the bishops are actually seeking is not “freedom” but a sort of unwritten concordat—a broad zone of immunity from laws they choose to regard as offensive. Now there is nothing terribly unusual or inherently outrageous about this desire; Vatican diplomacy for centuries has focused on the establishment of such arrangements—though typically written rather than plenary—with a wide array of governments. It’s the idea that this sort of arrangement involves “freedom” rather than frankly acknowledged special privileges that’s novel. [emphasis added]
The heart of the matter, of course, is defining what exactly is a “special privilege” (and subsequently when should they be granted). Is any request for an exemption from an otherwise generally applicable law special? Or is it, as the Bishops seem to say, only descriptive of exceptions that fall outside of the scope of those they choose to designate as matters of religious freedom?
In either case it’s clear that the issue is not as simple as the Bishops portray it to be. As the Blunt amendment debate revealed, religious freedom as an unlimited principle is an untenable solution. But neither are its limits self-evident. As the editors at Commonweal identify in their editorial on this statement, “Church-state relations are complicated, requiring the careful weighing of competing moral claims. The USCCB’s statement fails to acknowledge that fact.”
Negotiating this tricky balance is the messy work of democracy. It’s fair to take issues with particular attempts to strike that balance, but it’s unfair to broadly claim that those who disagree with you object to religious freedom at large.
In what seems to be a reaction to the debate about contraception and religious freedom of the last few months, Xavier University announced its insurance plans for university employees will no longer cover birth control, except for “non-contraceptive reasons.”
This notable exception appears to be an acknowledgement that the same drug can be used for different reasons and that this context determines the moral acceptability of its use. All an employee has to do is prove to the University that she’s using it for the allowed reasons and she’ll be approved. As to what happens if they don’t believe her? Ask Sandra Fluke’s friend.
The problem with this exception is that there’s no justifiable explanation for why it should only apply to birth control. There are a whole host of medical drugs and services which have different moral designations for various faith traditions depending on their use. Viagra doubles as a pulmonary disease treatment, anti-depressants can treat depression or just a low sex drive, and many drugs can be abused for recreational purposes.
Are Xavier employees who are prescribed these medications subject to school interrogation and approval? Are Catholic universities being accused of moral scandal for not doing so? Of course not. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine anyone holding an employer morally culpable for an employee’s misuse of a medical service, even more so when detecting that misuse requires determining the employee’s intentions.
Adopting a moral standard to prevent such a case would require instituting an enormously complex, legally questionable and distasteful verification and approval system, one that would require employers to become medical experts and lie detectors. Faced with the choice, employers (including religious employers) have understandably settled on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise that keeps the moral calculus in the hands of the individual.
Some religious workplaces even add an extra level of buffer, either requiring via contract or simply making clear that employees are expected to follow church teaching in their personal lives. What employees do after that point is on their individual consciences.
This standard essentially treats health care benefits the same way workplaces treat other forms of compensation such as salary and wages. A person who does something objectionable with their salary doesn’t make their employer complicit in their choice. Why should their health care purchases be any different?
Bishops and other religious objectors already have a way to protect their own institutional consciences from moral culpability regarding contraception. That they aren’t doing so makes it hard to buy their assertions that the HHS ruling on contraception coverage is an unbearable regulation that will force them to shut down. And that their objection only selectively applies to the issue of birth control does little to support their claim that their opposition to is simply about religious freedom and has nothing to do with contraception.
Keynoting last Friday’s ”Stand up for Religious Freedom” rally in Washington, DC (organized by a coalition of mostly anti-abortion groups), Christian conservative commentator Star Parker earned her biggest applause by drawing the following comparison:
No more than should my auto insurance cover your tune-up should my health insurance cover your sex life
While Parker’s audience seems to find this analogy hilarious, I don’t quite get its appeal. Assuming that Parker doesn’t have a particular moral objection to tune-ups, it just doesn’t make any sense.
My best guess is that Parker is simply appealing to the broader Randian sentiment all the rage on the right these days that individuals should be obligated to no one but themselves; that they specifically shouldn’t have to pay for anything for anyone else.
But, of course, paying for things for other people is the entire concept of insurance. Sure, it may feel personalized (I buy a policy from a company, pay my premiums, and when I need coverage they write a check for me), but in practice it’s really a miniature form of – gasp — “socialism,” redistributing wealth from the healthy to the sick, the good drivers to the bad, the lucky to the unlucky.
Some may not like knowing that their premiums “subsidize” the risky or objectionable decisions of their fellow policyholders, but that’s why they don’t really get a say. Once they write their premium check it’s not really their money anymore; they’re better off viewing it as just the regular fee they pay to ensure financial security if something bad happens to them.
If Parker and others really believe what’s she saying, their problems are much larger than the marginal issue of contraception coverage and religious employers. They should probably just stop buying insurance altogether.
He remarked that such politicians are practicing a certain “schizophrenia between individual and public morality.” Some Catholic politicians, Benedict notes, may claim to practice their religion in the private sphere, but “in public life they follow other paths that don’t correspond to the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for the foundation of a just society.”
Benedict argued that the Church must liberate politics “from false interests and the obscurity imposed by those interests” and work to create a “social doctrine [that] overcome[es] this social division [between rich and poor]—which is truly anti-social.”
“Benedict took a staple of Western pro-life rhetoric, which is the need for coherence between a Catholic’s private beliefs and public positions, and gave it a far broader spin. The need for coherence, the pope suggested, doesn’t end with the culture wars, but also applies to other questions of social justice – including, in the first instance, solidarity with the poor and efforts to overcome glaring inequalities.”
Public Religion Research Institute released the results a new poll today examining public opinion on the contraception coverage mandate, religious liberty and other related issues. The data are probably causing some discomfort for those desperately trying to frame the contraception debate as a “war on religion.” From PRRI’s press release:
On the heels of a months-long heated debate on religious liberty, a new national survey finds that a majority (56%) of Americans do NOT believe that the right of religious liberty is being threatened in America today. Roughly 4-in-10 (39%) believe religious liberty is under attack.
The new PRRI-RNS Religion News Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, allowed those who said religious liberty is under attack to explain in their own words why they felt the right of religious liberty is being threatened. Despite the recent heavy media focus on contraceptive coverage in the religious liberty debate, only 6% cited the contraception mandate issue. The most frequently cited reasons were perceptions that religion was being removed from the public square (23%) or that government was interfering with religion (20%).
“Some religious leaders, most prominently Catholic officials, have attempted to define the debate on the Obama administration’s contraceptive coverage mandate as a question of religious liberty, but most Americans do not believe religious liberty is under attack today,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO. “Nearly 6-in-10 Catholics do not believe that religious liberty is being threatened. The only religious group in which a majority believes religious liberty is being threatened in America today is evangelicals.”
This survey also finds those most likely to believe religious liberty is under attack are Republicans, white evangelical Protestants, and Americans age 65 and older.
I was also struck by the fact that 73% of millennials and 58% of political independents don’t buy the argument that religious liberty is under attack. That makes for tough sledding in this election and a bleak long-term outlook for conservatives who are pushing this argument for partisan gain. Public opinion is a volatile thing, so it would be a mistake for defenders of the contraception coverage mandate to rest on their laurels, but it’s definitely encouraging that the huge mobilization against it hasn’t persuaded most Americans.
Here’s a breakdown of what people who think religious liberty is at risk see as the specific threats: