Something agile and wise

Freedom of religion is freedom from religion

By Bill Moyers, Thursday, Feb 16, 2012 3:00 PM 18:46:13 CST

The president did something agile and wise the other day. And something quite important to the health of our politics. He reached up and snuffed out what some folks wanted to make into a cosmic battle between good and evil. No, said the president, we’re not going to turn the argument over contraception into Armageddon, this is an honest difference between Americans, and I’ll not see it escalated into a holy war. So instead of the government requiring Catholic hospitals and other faith-based institutions to provide employees with health coverage involving contraceptives, the insurance companies will offer that coverage, and offer it free.

The Catholic bishops had cast the president’s intended policy as an infringement on their religious freedom; they hold birth control to be a mortal sin, and were incensed that the government might coerce them to treat it otherwise. The president in effect said: No quarrel there; no one’s going to force you to violate your doctrine. But Catholics are also Americans, and if an individual Catholic worker wants coverage, she should have access to it — just like any other American citizen. Under the new plan, she will. She can go directly to the insurer, and the religious institution is off the hook.

When the president announced his new plan, the bishops were caught flat-footed. It was so … so reasonable. In fact, leaders of several large, Catholic organizations have now said yes to the idea. But the bishops have since regrouped, and are now opposing any mandate to provide contraceptives even if their institutions are not required to pay for them. And for their own reasons, Republican leaders in Congress have weighed in on the bishops’ side. They’re demanding, and will get, a vote in the Senate.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says:

The fact that the White House thinks this is about contraception is the whole problem. This is about freedom of religion. It’s right there in the First Amendment. You can’t miss it, right there in the very First Amendment to our Constitution. And the government doesn’t get to decide for religious people what their religious beliefs are. They get to decide that.

But here’s what Republicans don’t get, or won’t tell you. And what Obama manifestly does get. First, the war’s already lost: 98 percent of Catholic women of child-bearing age have used contraceptives. Second, on many major issues, the bishops are on Obama’s side — not least on extending unemployment benefits, which they call “a moral obligation.” Truth to tell, on economic issues, the bishops are often to the left of some leading Democrats, even if both sides are loathe to admit it. Furthermore — and shhh, don’t repeat this, even if the president already has — the Catholic Church funded Obama’s first community organizing, back in Chicago.

Ah, politics.

So the battle over contraception no longer seems apocalyptic. No heavenly hosts pitted against the forces of Satan. It’s a political brawl, not a crusade of believers or infidels. The president skillfully negotiated the line between respect for the religious sphere and protection of the spiritual dignity and freedom of individuals. If you had listened carefully to the speech Barack Obama made in 2009 at the University of Notre Dame, you could have seen it coming:

The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem-cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships might be relieved. The question then is, “How do we work through these conflicts?”

We Americans have wrestled with that question from the beginning. Some of our forebearers feared the church would corrupt the state. Others feared the state would corrupt the church. It’s been a real tug-of-war, sometimes quite ugly. Churches and religious zealots did get punitive laws passed against what they said were moral and religious evils: blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, alcohol, gambling, books, movies, plays … and yes, contraception. But churches also fought to end slavery, help workers organize and pass progressive laws. Of course, government had its favorites at times;  for much of our history, it privileged the Protestant majority. And in my lifetime alone, it’s gone back and forth on how to apply the First Amendment to ever-changing circumstances among people so different from each other. The Supreme Court, for example, first denied, then affirmed, the right of the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses to refuse, on religious grounds, to salute the flag.

So here we are once again, arguing over how to honor religious liberty without it becoming the liberty to impose on others moral beliefs they don’t share. Our practical solution is the one Barack Obama embraced the other day: protect freedom of religion — and  freedom from religion. Can’t get more American than that.

My thanks to Julie Leininger Pycior, professor of history at Manhattan College, for her insights and counsel on this essay.

http://www.salon.com/2012/02/16/freedom_of_religion_is_freedom_from_religion/ or http://bit.ly/xjC8Go

Related Posts

Special clearance Muslim Brotherhood Taking Over America, Six Hour FBI Meeting By Victoria Jackson, 12/27/11 08:19 AM ET ... Former "Saturday Night Live" actress...
The well is deep The Means Determine the End By Harry Emerson Fosdick, Living Under Tension, 1941, Harper and Brothers, New York and London, pages 102 – 111. ... ...
See how easy this is? The Muslim Test: How To Expose The Hypocrisy Of The Religious Right By Justin "Filthy Liberal Scum" Rosario, December 27, 2011 ... One of the m...
Smells like TEA Old Ron Paul Video Warns of One-World Religion, UN Dictatorship By Tim Murphy, Tue Dec. 27, 2011 3:05 AM PST ... Rep. Ron Paul's presidential c...
Death via live broadcast On third anniversary of Gaza war, we will remember By Amira Hass, 03:53 02.01.12 ... On the third anniversary of the Cast Lead onslaught, we re...
With us always Why we still can’t talk about slavery By Peter Birkenhead, Tuesday, Dec 27, 2011 12:00 PM 13:11:06 CST ... The menu at the Cabin was long, one ...
Fully entitled to ask Romney’s Mormon Problem By Christopher Hitchens, Monday, Oct. 17, 2011, at 11:05 AM ET ... I have no clear idea whether Pastor Robert Jeffress ...
Religious impulse revealed 2011: when protest turned peaceful By Peter Popham, Saturday 24 December 2011 ... In September, a man nicknamed "Little Gandhi" was buried in h...
These champions of Zion How I became a 'terrorist' By Abdelrahman Al Ahmar, 02:47 23.12.11 ... The first time I was attacked by an Israeli settler, I was 14 years old....
The irony would not have been lost The near-religious zeal that drives the godless By Howard Jacobson, Saturday 24 December 2011 ... May I take this opportunity to wish readers...

Permanent link to this article: http://levantium.com/2012/02/16/something-agile-and-wise/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.