John Stoehr
John Stoehr
John Stoehr is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale.
Campaign against birth control is religious fanaticism
Catholic and Evangelical leaders are fighting for "religious freedom" and US citizens of all faiths are paying for it.
Last Modified: 20 Feb 2012 10:20
Obama's plan for preventative care for female employees has stirred up controversy among Catholics [GALLO/GETTY]

New Haven, CT - It has been weeks since the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops first denounced a federal mandate that required preventative care for female employees in Catholic employers' insurance plans. They said President Obama's rule infringed on their religious liberty. In case you missed it, the gist of the allegation was that requiring religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges to pay for birth control violates their conscience and therefore violates their First Amendment rights. So they say.
 
Much ink has been spilled, but not much has been said about the Catholic Church's behaviour on this matter. It seems to be the definition of religious fanaticism. This fanaticism, in fact, is being underwritten by US taxpayers of all faiths, who had to stand by while their democratically elected president attempted to appease a theocratic oligarchy. The bishops' conference, which is the major church authority in the US, is acting politically, not religiously, and its politics are concerned with protecting its authoritarian power, not representing the egalitarian power of the pew. For US citizens, whether they are Catholic or not, this is a troubling double insult.
 
Progressive US critics have argued that the issue was never about religious freedom but about women's rights. Now that Obama has tweaked the rule so that insurance companies, not churches, must provide birth control, what was at stake all along has finally been revealed. That seems right - but only half right.


Obama revises birth control policy amid backlash from Church

Protecting religion from religion

No doubt the bishops desired to uphold church doctrine, but this was only means to an end. That church doctrine says something about female reproduction is incidental (and discriminatory and hypocritical, but let's set that aside for a moment). What's important about church doctrine, at least to fanatics, is that it gives reason to the existence of church authority. What's the point of church authority if it allows the forces of modernity to railroad the ancient sacred tenets of the One True Church?
 
We used to have a different kind of debate on the role of the Catholic Church in US politics. Granted, that debate was bigoted and paranoid about grubby papist hordes from Italy, Ireland and Poland who privileged loyalty to Rome over pledging allegiance to the United States flag. But from that 19th century tension arose a fundamental belief that we now more or less take for granted: the separation between church and state.
 
Most view the establishment clause as something that keeps government safe from religion, but back then, it was keeping religion safe from the government. Not, however, in the way that Archbishop Timothy Dolan evidently thinks. Church-state separation was a safeguard in case a Catholic rose to power and sought to impose his beliefs on everyone else. It was xenophobic, but in practice, the principle meant that protecting government from religion was an indirect and uniquely American way of protecting a religion from other religions.
 
Exceptional, not equal

Dolan, who is president of the bishops' conference and now on his way to Rome to be a cardinal, appealed to the First Amendment and, by implication, the establishment clause when he said that government has no business telling religion what it can and can't do. But by claiming that Catholic conscience supersedes the rule of law, Dolan and others are in effect imposing their beliefs on the non-Catholic workers, patients and students at hospitals and colleges affiliated with the Church, an outcome that church-state separation sought to prevent.

This is no doubt why the original mandate for providing preventative care for women allowed for an exception respecting religion (an exception, by the way, that was modelled on laws in 28 states). If employers hire mostly Catholics, serve mostly Catholics, and seek to convert those whom they serve to Catholicism, then they qualified for an exception to the rule, because, otherwise, forcing Catholic employers to provide birth control would be a double violation: of employers' religious convictions and their guaranteed First Amendment rights.
 
So, you see, the mandate and its exception already had in mind the preservation of the right to religious liberty. But the bishops' interpretation turned this around to serve their needs, not the needs of lay Catholics and non-Catholics. They can't follow the law because they're Catholic, they say, and they can't be exempted from the law because they're Catholic. They don't want equal protection under the law; they want preferential protection. What's obvious about this "controversy" is that it's anti-birth control - and hence anti-women. What's not obvious is that it's an expression of an authoritarian worldview, one that's deeply un-American.
 
Why fanaticism?

Dolan and the bishops planned to take on the Obama administration, even though a variation of Obama’s rule had been on the books since the Bush era. About a decade ago, the law demanded that every employer with more than 15 workers provide equal coverage for men and women (specifically, you can’t pay for Viagra while not paying for the Pill). According to Mother Jones, Obama’s sole contribution was to expand the mandate to all employers and to require no co-pay. This is why major Catholic universities already provide birth control.

"[The Catholic Church] is fighting against same-sex marriage, and for the hearts of Catholics disillusioned by dogma and by years of headlines about priests raping boys and girls."

Why are the bishops fighting now that the mandate has been changed so that insurance companies pay for birth control, not churches, thus saving religious employers from the sin of violating their conscience? And why are the bishops rejecting Obama’s "compromise", when prominent Catholics such as columnist EJ Dionne and the editors of America, a Catholic weekly, are OK with it?
 
My guess is this is part of the global drift of the Roman Catholic Church to the right, which itself is a reaction to secular currents in Europe and North America. They are fighting against same-sex marriage, and for the hearts of Catholics disillusioned by dogma and by years of headlines about priests raping boys and girls.
 
But at their core, they are doubling down to protect their power. The Church is not a republican institution. If it were, it would be at odds with its constituents, a majority of whom have used birth control at least once in their lives. And it seems that only fanatics would be impervious to the contradiction between this birth-control crusade and recent allegations that more than 8,000 children were sexually abused by 100 priests in Milwaukee.
 
We are subsidising their politics

Making the disconnect wider between priests and those they claim to represent is that the bishops are joining evangelical Christians in a campaign to fight any federal measure that they say undermines freedom of religion. Thanks to this campaign, Republicans can score a few points. But more troubling is that the campaign may include TV and radio ads and, according to Reuters, "pastors of every evangelical denomination ... [will] read their congregations an open letter protesting the contraception mandate". Inside and outside church, we are going to see attacks on Obama and others who stand by a woman's right to birth control, a culmination of years of religious leaders politicising their religions.
 
Taxpayers of all faiths and persuasions - Protestants, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, etc - are subsidising those efforts. A church is a tax-exempt entity in the US. By not taxing it, the government is implicitly underwriting it. But a church can only remain tax-exempt by adhering to rules enforced by the Internal Revenue Service. True, the law has wiggle room, but publicly calling on pastors to decry a mandate that does not in fact infringe on religious conscience is a political act that seeks to exert power on those who do not share their faith. To defeat this rightward drift, it's not enough to defend women's rights, because that is ultimately a secular case. A religious case must be made against this tide of authoritarianism, which is, of course, a defence of the country’s core values.

John Stoehr is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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