The Imaginary Secular

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Thomas Jefferson said that – apparently when he was ticked off at calls for our new and young government to do something about folks who simply had the wrong religious beliefs. And you can understand his frustration. The whole point of tossing in that very first amendment to the Constitution, where we all said our new government would not have anything to do with the establishment of religion, was to keep arguments about whether there are twenty gods, or no God, or the Southern Baptists and not the Missouri Synod got things right, out of the realm of government. Running a new and growing government sensibly was hard enough without discussions of nature of the Trinity or hypothetical divinity of Mary – which Catholics claim is not hypothetical at all. This was not the government’s business – it had other fish to fry – like getting a new country up and running. The miracle of the loaves and fishes was a fine and dandy story, but we would be at war with the British again soon enough, and monetary and trade policy and all the rest had to be worked out, and taxes to finance things. Those were the fish to fry. So if someone is harming you, or anyone else, the government has a legitimate role in stepping in and stopping that nonsense. But if you are offended by the other guy’s religious beliefs, or lack of them, that’s your problem. The Establishment Clause fenced off the government from that sort of thing. No one picked your pocket. No one broke your leg. Deal with it.

So we say we have freedom of religion. Believe what you will. That’s your business. But of course it’s freedom by default. The government doesn’t actively encourage and support freedom of religion. It just steps away and does other things. It’s just a government, not a church or philosophic forum on metaphysics and ethics and the true source of the good. The idea is to protect the people from enemies, both foreign and domestic, and make sure everyone is reasonably healthy and reasonably educated, and that there are roads and bridges and running water and power and all that infrastructure stuff that allows for prosperity, and that no one is cheating anyone else too often or too obviously, and there’s a monetary system that allows for commerce. You just make sure everyone gets a chance to be what they want to be. And that’s enough. That’ll keep you busy. Any politician who tells you they’re doing God’s work is in the wrong line of work.

At least that’s the theory. But religion doesn’t work that way. Many religions involve the idea that your sacred duty is to convert others to your beliefs, the Truth as it were. Evangelicals and Muslim jihadists share that, although their tactics differ – both want to save you somehow, or eliminate you if you refuse to be saved – all in the name of love of course. So their free exercise of religion involves taking away your freedom to be indifferent to it all. And both want to use the government to attain that end. In Saudi Arabia, by law, women must be veiled and cannot drive. And our evangelicals call for laws to deal with those gays, because they are abominations to God, and to make abortion illegal, and all contraception too – and so on and so forth. Jefferson said what he said, but all the time we hear calls to enact laws to forbid this or allow that (school prayer) – because that’s how God obviously wants it to be. Yes, their free exercise of religion involves taking away your freedom to be indifferent to it all. And certainly the government shouldn’t be indifferent, or so they say.

And now it just got more complicated:

From Maine to Phoenix to southern Louisiana, Catholic churches across the USA this weekend echoed with scorn for a new federal rule requiring faith-based employers to include birth control and other reproductive services in their health care coverage.

Dozens of priests took the rare step of reading letters from the pulpit urging parishioners to reach out to Washington and oppose the rule, enacted this month.

The rule requires nearly all employers to provide their employees access to health insurance that covers artificial contraception, sterilization services and the “morning after” birth control pill.

The mandate exempts churches but applies to Catholic universities, Catholic-based charities and to groups affiliated with Methodists, Baptists and other denominations.

Yes, Roman Catholic leaders morally oppose artificial birth control and related services – like any kind of health services for women that might lead to anything like birth control – and of course they called the rule an infringement on their constitutional rights. The item quotes Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB] – “This is the government interfering in the workings of the church.”

So we got this:

New Orleans-area churches read a letter from Archbishop Gregory Aymond at Saturday and Sunday Masses, directing churchgoers at the diocese’s 108 parishes to denounce the rule and contact Congress to reverse the ruling. “This ruling is an example of government violating our rights,” the letter read.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix issued a similar letter to its 92 parishes, saying it plans to flout the law and urging churchgoers to write Congress.

Church leaders in Maine read a letter from Bishop Richard Malone protesting the rule he called a violation of the church’s First Amendment right to freedom of religious practices and urging parishioners into action.

And this:

It was not known exactly how many churches addressed the issue. About one-third of America’s 50 million Roman Catholics – more than 15 million – attend Mass once a week, says William D’Antonio, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America. However, in recent polls, about 95% of Catholics have said they use contraceptives and 89% say the decision to use them should be theirs, not the church’s, he says.

Oops. And there’s the other view:

Judy Waxman of the National Women’s Law Center says easier access to contraceptives could prevent unwanted pregnancies and cut down on the number of abortions. “This is such a major step forward for women in this country,” she says.

But then the Washington Post’s E .J. Dionne makes an odd liberal case that the Obama administration made a big mistake when it issued these rules requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptives:

Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question. But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the Church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here.

But Kevin Drum calls that nonsense:

I’m just a big ol’ secular lefty, so I guess it’s natural that I’d disagree. And I do. I guess I’m tired of religious groups operating secular enterprises (hospitals, schools), hiring people of multiple faiths, serving the general public, taking taxpayer dollars – and then claiming that deeply held religious beliefs should exempt them from public policy. Contra Dionne, it’s precisely religious pluralism that makes this impractical. There are simply too many religions with too many religious beliefs to make this a reasonable approach. If we’d been talking about, say, an Islamic hospital insisting that its employees bind themselves to sharia law, I imagine the “religious community” in the United States would be a wee bit more understanding if the Obama administration refused to condone the practice.

I can understand compromising over a very limited number of hot button issues. Abortion is the obvious one. But in general, if Catholic hospitals don’t want to follow reasonable, 21st century secular rules, they need to make themselves into truly religious enterprises. In particular, they need to stop taking secular taxpayer money. As long as they do, though, they should follow the same rules as anyone else.

If you take everyone’s taxpayer dollars to serve the general public, not just your parishioners… well, you’re hardly a church, or you’re not operating as one in that instance.

But to put this in perspective, there’s this long item at Religion Dispatches on how, for Republicans on the campaign trail, 2012 is shaping up to be a banner year for conservative assaults on laws and policies they see as infringing on their religious freedom:

Rick Perry, in the most parodied ad of the election cycle thus far, claimed that “you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” He then pledges to end “Obama’s war on religion.”

Newt Gingrich has for some time subscribed to fabricated theories that anti-American secularists aim to drive religion from the public square. Speaking at televangelist and Christians United for Israel founder John Hagee’s church last March, he said, “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [my grandchildren are] my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

And on the other side:

In announcing the Secular Coalition for America’s presidential scorecard, the group’s president, Herb Silverman, said, “it’s frightening to see that at least half of the candidates don’t have a basic understanding of the principle of separation of church and state on which our country was founded.” The group singled out Gingrich in particular, noting that his statements demonstrate “hostility toward secular Americans and an unwillingness to separate his religious beliefs from his previous and prospective roles as an elected official.”

But there’s this:

The National Organization for Marriage, the anti-LGBT group that has pressed the argument that same-sex marriage amounts to religious persecution of Christians, put out a “marriage pledge,” which was subsequently signed by both Gingrich and Perry, in addition to Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Mitt Romney. The pledge includes, among other “concrete actions,” a promise to establish a presidential commission on religious liberty. Three days after signing, Gingrich released a 20-page white paper laying out his plan to institute a Presidential Commission on Religious Freedom on the very first day of his presidency. Gingrich’s document maintains that “the foundations for religious freedom in America are being eroded” as “[t]he meaning of the First Amendment has been twisted to fit a post-modern world.”

Echoing the religious right’s longstanding assault on “activist judges,” he blames “abuses” on litigants he claims fill the courts “with hundreds of cases based on anti-religious misconceptions, which are then reinforced by judges determined to impose their own views on other citizens.” (It’s worth noting that Gingrich’s attacks on the constitutional separation of powers, including calls to investigate and impeach judges whose views differ from his, and even a suggestion that federal marshals be called in to round them up, have been roundly condemned, even by conservative legal experts.)

“Gingrich’s commission looks like another one of his attempts to intimidate federal judges, trash the separation of powers and run roughshod over the independent judiciary,” said Rob Boston, Senior Policy Counsel for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “The United States enjoys the highest degree of religious liberty of any nation in the world. Gingrich and his allies talk about threats to religious freedom, but what they really want is the right to use government to shove conservative/fundamentalist/ultra-orthodox social views down everyone else’s throats.”

Jefferson would throw up his hands in frustration, as he never expected this, or this:

The Church has an ally in Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Late last year, he convened a hearing on whether the Department of Health and Human Services discriminated against the Church when it determined that contractors serving victims of human trafficking would be required to refer victims of sexual assault for a full range of obstetric and gynecological care, including abortion, contraceptives, and sterilization. Because the USCCB does not refer for these services, its $2 million contract was not renewed, setting off a firestorm of accusations that the Obama administration is anti-Catholic.

Republican Chris Smith, a longtime crusader against access to reproductive care services, charged that “the Obama administration’s bias against Catholics is an affront to religious freedom and a threat to all people of faith.” The administration, he added, discriminated against the USCCB “solely because [the USCCB] fundamentally respects the innate value and preciousness of an unborn child and refuses to be complicit in procuring his or her violent death by abortion.”

But then there is Marci Hamilton, a First Amendment expert and a professor at the Cardozo School of Law – “There is no constitutional right to have government funding tailored to your religious requirements.” The idea seems to be that in the case life-of saving policies taxpayers should have a reasonable expectation that their money is being invested wisely. And this:

What’s more, the notion that the federal government has somehow discriminated against Catholics is rendered even more absurd by the hard numbers: in 2011 alone, according to the federal government database at Catholic Charities received over $753 million in federal funding. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has not, as the president promised on the campaign trail, reformed faith-based funding to ensure, among other things, that groups receiving taxpayer aid do not discriminate in hiring. It seems that there is a more compelling argument to be made that federally-funded religious groups are actually given a license to discriminate by the government, not that they are discriminated against.

But we all know how this happened:

From a political angle, though, the Bishops know their audience: the Obama administration, through its version of George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of faith-based organizations providing social services, particularly during tough economic times. In Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, and most recently in Illinois, Catholic Charities has shut down its adoption services entirely rather face the mere possibility of placing children with same-sex couples.

Bush started this. Obama continued it. And now there’s a new alliance of Catholics and evangelicals:

By framing efforts to prevent government establishment or privileging of particular religions as infringements on religious freedom, the Bishops’ religious liberty campaign is the latest evidence of the strengthening of the alliance between the Catholic Church and the evangelical right, whose precepts were laid out in the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which stated:

“We are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions.”

These “fashionable ideologies” and “instruments of coercion” are later in the document less euphemistically alluded to as “despotism” and “tyranny.” In the parlance of the Manhattan Declaration, “such persons claiming these ‘rights’ are very often in the vanguard of those who would trample upon the freedom of others to express their religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.”

And it goes on and on. Those are only the highlights from this item. The details are even more startling, or would startle Jefferson. Maybe no one is startled now.

And then there’s Ross Douthat:

It’s precisely the more universal services provided by Catholicism’s institutions that have left them vulnerable to the Obama White House’s current regulatory attack. If they were explicitly sectarian in their community service, they would be eligible for the narrow conscience exemption that the Department of Health and Human Services has afforded to religious bodies. But because they serve non-Catholics as well as Catholics, the government has decided (as Yuval Levin puts it in a fine post today) that they can be “fined for holding views regarding contraception, sterilization, and abortion that are different from the Obama administration’s views.”

In other words, contemporary liberalism offers religious groups a choice. They can try to serve the widest possible population, in which case a liberal administration will set rules that force them to violate their conscience. Or they can serve a narrower one, in which case liberal journalists will sneer at them (and their most generous benefactors) for only caring about their co-religionists.

And over at the conservative-bellwether National Review, Yuval Levin had said this:

As many have noted around here, the fact of the administration’s willingness to do this sheds light on its hostility to (or at the very least its contempt for) religious liberty. But it’s not quite that simple. This incident (and especially the nature of the exemption that the administration was willing to grant, which is essentially an exemption for actual houses of worship but not for other religiously-affiliated institutions) also sheds light on a very deeply rooted problem in our tradition of religious liberty itself – a problem that should cause those of us inclined to seek recourse in “conscience protection” and religious exemptions to pause and think.

Ah, we should have the liberty to take your money and use it to force people to think as we think, as that is what religious liberty really is, or something:

This approach is especially noxious and pernicious when it is directed at religiously affiliated institutions – both because they deserve special standing and because they do some of the hardest and most needful work of charity and care in our society. We should use every available means to protect those institutions from this mortal danger, and that certainly includes resorting to the language of conscience and exemption. But as we do so, we should not forget that we are dealing with an instance of a larger and deeper danger, and we should do what we can to combat that danger in its own terms. It is perhaps the gravest threat to freedom in American life today.

Is it really? Doug Mataconis thinks not:

I think Drum is correct here. Religious liberty is an important principle, one that I take very seriously, but it doesn’t mean what Dionne and the Catholic Bishops seems to think it means. Operating a hospital or a school or an adoption agency is not a religious undertaking in the same way that, well, operating a church is, and there’s simply no merit to the argument regulations regarding how you operate an institution that is essentially secular in nature are somehow a violation of religious liberty. More importantly, operating such institutions while taking government money (i.e., Medicare and Medicaid) means accepting at least some regulation about how that money is used.

But then there is that law professor, Steven Bainbridge, who says no one gets it:

To force Catholics to differentiate between “a hospital or a school or an adoption agency” and “a church” is thus to deny us the right to practice our religion as we see fit.

Well, yes, some do see everything in life as a struggle to enact God’s will here on earth. There is nothing that is actually secular – which of course makes Jefferson a heretic.

But this sounds awfully familiar – and Awe and Awful are related words. We just spent the good part of a decade fighting those who claim there is nothing really secular and it’s all a struggle to enact God’s will here on earth. Nothing is simple. Jefferson should have known better.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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