The mainstream press keeps telling us that the struggle of Catholics v. Obamacare is about birth control. This is partly ineptitude, partly an attempt to depict the controversy as irrelevant, since Catholics use contraceptives at almost the same rate as the general population. And, consciously or not, this ordinary bit of journalistic malpractice pins an anti-contraceptive label on Republicans in an election year.
But this story isn’t just about birth control. It’s also about the “morning after” pill and sterilization, and down the road it will be about suicide pills, genetic engineering, abortion and mandatory abortion training, transgender operations, and a whole new series of morally problematic procedures about to come over the horizon. One very large principle is at stake: the right of religious believers to apply their own moral principles at their own institutions.
The elites in this country, once largely Episcopalian, now almost entirely secular, are determined to limit if not banish the influence of religion in the public square. This line of thinking, much of it derived from political philosopher John Rawls, means making sure that religious organizations behave precisely like secular ones.
Anti-discrimination law is the principal battering ram used against religious believers and their institutions. Take the example of Seton Hill, a Catholic-run California hospital that came under enormous pressure to perform breast-enlargement surgery on a transgendered patient. The hospital saw the enlargement operation as part of a larger transgender procedure. Can a Catholic hospital decline an operation contrary to its moral code, particularly when many other nearby hospitals were willing to do it? No, the refusal was bias under the state’s Unruh anti-discrimination law. The hospital caved under litigation and paid $200,000 to the non-patient.
Many universities now insist that all campus organizations and their boards of officers must be open to all students. That sounds good, but it means that Hillel must accept anti-Semites and Holocaust-deniers. Evangelical groups, though they believe homosexuality is condemned by the Bible, must allow gay officers. Some universities yielded to common sense, but a good many have defunded or otherwise punished Evangelical groups, in effect ruling that they cannot be permitted to live up to their own principles.
A similar issue arose in Massachusetts over Catholic Charities’ refusal to allow gay couples to adopt. Catholic Charities accepted responsibility for 31 percent of the state’s hardest-to-place children—those abused or neglected—almost entirely at its own expense.
But the state would not grant an exemption for religious belief, so Catholic Charities quit the adoption field. No practical principle was at stake. Gays are free to adopt through 50 other agencies in the state. The Archdiocese of Boston made no attempt to block gay couples from adopting elsewhere. It said it respected the principles of others and hoped the state would respect those of Catholic Charities. It didn’t.
[Under what conditions can the state force churches and religious agencies either to violate their own principles or to quit providing social services altogether?]
In the conventional liberal narrative, the refusal of Catholic Charities to approve gay adoptions was a simple issue of discrimination. Generally absent from the discussion was this question: Under what conditions can the state force churches and religious agencies either to violate their own principles and disappear into coerced silence, or just quit providing social services altogether?
In effect, Massachusetts used its licensing power to bring the Church to heel—no gay adoptions, no license to conduct any adoptions. Acting on traditional social principles—that one father and one mother are best for children—became bias.
John Garvey, then dean of the Boston College Law School and now president of Catholic University, argued that the most pressing concern should have been religious freedom, not who was right about gay families. “When freedom is at stake, the issue is never whether the claimant is right,” he writes, any more than freedom of the press requires publishers to guarantee that everything they print is true. “Freedom of religion is above all else a protection for ways of life the society views with skepticism or distaste.”
In the conventional liberal narrative, the refusal of Boston Catholic Charities to approve gay adoptions was a simple issue of discrimination. Generally absent from the discussion was this question: Under what conditions can the state force churches and religious agencies either to violate their own principles or to quit providing social services altogether?
Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, calls this establishment pressure “liberal monism.” She means that those who talk the most about diversity and pluralism are often the most willing to mandate that all private and religious institutions conform to one ideological framework.
Liberals, she says, are eradicating the differences needed to make tolerance a viable practice. In order to enhance diversity, it is necessary to suppress it. That’s why the current battle against Washington-imposed monism is so crucial, and why it should be much more than a fringe issue in the fall campaign.