In the movie Big Jake (1971), John Wayne plays Jacob McCandles, a storied gunman who happens upon a lynching. Unnoticed by the mob, McCandles reaches for his rifle, draws a bead on the action, pauses, then lowers his rifle.
Recalling an earlier event in his checkered past that almost cost his life, Big Jake decides to move on and not get involved. Just then, the leader kicks a young boy and, in our cue there’s gonna be trouble, Jake winces, muttering, “Now what’d he have to go and do that for?”
I had the same reaction months ago when the Obama administration delivered a body blow to the Catholic Church in the form of the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) mandate.
When I heard that the rule required employers, regardless of religious convictions, to provide contraceptives, sterilization procedures, and abortion-inducing drugs free of charge to female employees through company insurance plans, I thought, “Now what’d they have to go and do that for?” Politically, altruistically, economically, medically, and constitutionally, it made no sense.
Why, why, why?
Politically, Catholics make up one fourth of the electorate and, by a majority, supported the winning candidate (including Obama) in nine of the past 10 presidential elections. Why risk alienating a significant group in your base, along with others in liberal precincts who oppose the mandate’s encroachment on personal liberty?
Altruistically, the Catholic Church is one of the largest and most effective social service providers in the country. Why risk punishing the poor and needy by forcing it out of business? From past showdowns with the state, the Catholic Church has made its position clear: When faced with obeying God or obeying man, the Church will give Caesar what is due him, but no more. If the state sticks with its position, the predictable outcome (again) will be the unnecessary disruption of services to those who need them most.
Economically, women already have ample access to low-cost and often free contraceptives through community clinics and discount stores like Wal-Mart. Why coerce employers to provide them free of charge? Besides, they won’t really be free, hidden in the cost of increased insurance premiums.
Medically, how is this a women’s health issue as supporters insist? Did I miss the announcement by the AMA that fertility is a disease? If so, what about men? If women need free cervical caps and tubectomies for their health, don’t men need free condoms and vasectomies for theirs?
Then again, if the real concern is health, why not target the biggest health issue in America, obesity, by requiring insurance plans to provide personal trainers and memberships in the YMCA and Weight Watchers to employees of both sexes, free of charge?
Constitutionally, the free exercise of religion enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights presupposes the freedom of conscience recognized by the international community in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So why pick a fight, fraught with constitutional difficulties, especially in an election year when jobs and the economy are foremost on the minds of voting Americans?
From every angle I considered, the HHS mandate was a senseless, heavy-handed action that served the interests of no one, including the Administration.
Then again. . . .
One special interest group that stands to gain is the drug industry. Timothy Carney, senior political columnist for The Washington Examiner, writes that during Obama’s presidency, the drug industry has amassed a lobbying tab exceeding that of “Wall Street and the oil and gas industry, combined.” Their payoff? Obamacare and the requirement that all FDA-approved contraceptive methods be covered under the mandate. Considering that the consumer is unburdened from concerns of cost and cost containment, the rule is sure to boost the industry’s bottom line.
More importantly, the mandate serves to mollify the lifestyle left—an important ideological group for the President—at little political cost, in theory, since most Americans and most Catholics practice birth control irrespective of church teachings. And while it hasn’t turned out that way, as faith groups of all stripes have added their voice of protest to that of their Catholic neighbors, it plays into a bigger narrative.
Freedom of what?
Less than a year into office, President Obama told a gathering honoring the victims of the Fort Hood shooting, “We’re a nation that guarantees the freedom to worship as one chooses.” Well, we’re a nation that guarantees much more than that; we’re a nation that protects freedom of religion, which goes far beyond our worship practices.
Freedom of religion is the freedom to integrate our faith into every dimension of life, whether public or private. It is the right not only to worship, but to teach, preach, and evangelize, to raise our children, conduct business, exercise citizenship, and work for the common good of our neighbors and nation according to our religious beliefs. Freedom of worship is a truncation of that right, protecting religious liberty only within the confines of church and home.
As George Weigel put it in National Review Online, “if religious freedom is simply freedom of worship, then there is religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, so long as Christian or Jewish prayer takes place behind closed doors (and no one snitches to the Islamist purity police).”
Cause for concern?
Was the President’s phraseology simply a rhetorical flourish signaling no intentional policy change? Ashley Samelson of the Becket Fund thinks not. She notes that, since the Fort Hood speech, both the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have used the phrase “too many times to seem inadvertent.” Others, like journalist Paul Moses, think otherwise, believing this is much ado about nothing.
Writing for dotCommonweal, Moses contends that the administration uses the “freedom of worship” and “freedom of religion” interchangeably. Moses acknowledges the difference in meaning, yet beams confidently, “The effort to take a few remarks out of context and spin them into a massive conspiracy against civil rights—threatening enough to make us ‘get very nervous’—lacks a basis in reality.”
I'm not as sanguine, as it follows a tried-and-true rebranding strategy. I remember, back in the mid-’80s, when the Datsun motor company was rebranded to Nissan. For three years its cars carried both logos. During that time the Nissan label gradually gained prominence until the Datsun label was eclipsed and eventually dropped.
Granted, the rebranding of Datsun resulted in no substantive changes, since it only involved names. But “worship” and “religion” are words, meaning carriers that signify one as a subset of the other. Thus, if “freedom of religion” gets rebranded to “freedom of worship,” you can bet that more will be dropped than a name.
More than rhetoric
If this were only a matter of tallying up sound bites in speeches, Paul Moses might be right about the conservative handwringing over religious liberty. But it is not. Added to the shift in political rhetoric are actions consistent with that shift.
The Alliance Defense Fund has documented nearly two dozen actions by the Obama administration that curtail, or threaten to curtail, religious freedom. In addition to the HHS mandate already mentioned, they include the following:
The need for introspection
The Church represents the biggest threat to secular elites and their visions for the social order. Christian teachings on the dignity of human beings at all stages of life, the sanctity of marriage, and human sexuality stand firmly opposed to the social platform of abortion-on-demand, embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage,” and extramarital sex.
Yet, as with Catholics and birth control, few Christians actually live according to Christian teachings—their rates of divorce, sexual promiscuity, and substance abuse, among other behaviors, are on par with those of their non-Christian neighbors. As practiced, Christianity in America extends no further than the doorsteps of home and church.
For groups intent on keeping the wheels of social “progress” turning, officially quarantining religious speech and practice to those private domains should have been a slam dunk. That it hasn’t been, is reason for thanks; that it was so supposed, is reason for serious introspection within the Christian community.
“What’d they have to go and do that for?” The lack of congruence between private beliefs and public practice led them to think that they could.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.