The recent flap over the Obama Administration's refusal to expand the HHS Conscience Clause to exempt religious affiliated institutions from providing contraceptives and abortion services provides in interesting case study in how often people fail to realize the underlying assumptions and larger ramifications of any decision that is made. And while the President offered what he says is a compromise, the Catholic bishops have rejected the gesture saying that it is nothing but an accounting trick. Indeed, a letter is now circulating, authored from the University of Notre Dame Law School, stating that the Obama compromise is unacceptable. It has been signed by many Catholic and other religious leaders and scholars in several disciplines and no doubt more will follow.
I happen to agree with those who believe that nothing has truly changed in light of Friday's compromise, except that, unlike some others, I will not assign nefarious motives to the president and his cabinet. I will not play the partisan game of always seeing one's political opponents as bad, evil, conniving, and dishonest. I assume that the decision on Friday was a good faith effort at a compromise. Nevertheless, the decision really changes nothing. Health care providers will still pass the cost of contraceptive coverage onto the employer even though it will not explicitly say so on the books. Thus, religiously affiliated institutions will still be providers of something they morally object to offering. And there is still the matter of religiously affiliated health insurers.
Several Protestants have expressed surprise that I have come out on the side of the Catholic bishops on this (I have received a few choicely worded emails). I am after all a Protestant, and a mainliner too, which means, I gather from those not-so-nice emails, that I should find the position of the Catholic Church to be outdated and therefore to be rejected. But when it comes to Christian doctrine and practice, I do not subscribe to the "Flavor of the Month Club." In actuality, I am not in complete agreement with the Catholic Church on contraception, but I find that irrelevant in this matter. And while I too am concerned about women's health (I have a wife and two daughters), I reject the argument that those who are against the HHS mandate are assaulting women's health. And, yes, I am a man which means for some I have nothing of value to say about this matter. I will only appeal to more than a few of the women I know in my life who find the assault rhetoric to be over-the-top.
I certainly realize that the people on both sides feel strongly about this issue and both groups can offer some justification for their views, but there is a bigger picture here because of the assumptions involved concerning religion and its practices in this ruling by the HHS. And I believe we ignore that larger picture at our peril. The unforeseen ramifications down the road might well be something all religious persons regret. In this post, I want to highlight only one greatly problematic assumption for Christians in this ruling.
The HHS conscience clause allows for churches to opt out of providing contraceptive services if they are a church, that is, if they are a religious body that offers worship, and word, and sacrament, and specifically Christian education (Apparently, if you teach social studies at a Catholic school, that is not a religious endeavor, because the Lordship of Jesus Christ doesn't extend into the world, which is why God only cares about our children learning the Bible.) So why are church's exempt? Because the administration has deemed that what the church does inside the walls of its building is religious in character and therefore is to be protected by the first amendment. In this instance, therefore the government has no right to interfere. Things are different, however, according to the HHS, with religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and orphanages and charities. Since the Obama Administration has concluded that those institutions can be regulated, it has decided by default that the work of these institutions are not religious. Therefore, the first amendment does not apply.
I have to say as a mainline Methodist, I really appreciate the irony of this. Mainliners have either been quite silent on the HHS ruling or they have basically sided with it. And in so doing they have also unwittingly embraced the assumption that their work for social justice is basically secular in nature-- that the church is only the church when it is the gathered community inside the building with the steeple on top. Thus, what religious people are doing in feeding the poor, and caring for the sick, and taking care of orphans is not religious per se; it is secular. And if mainliners for social justice reject that assumption, the first amendment now applies to religiously affiliated hospitals, orphanages, etc. and the HHS Conscience Clause in its current form is unconstitutional. Indeed, I would suggest that if the HHS ruling is correct, then for the purposes of statecraft, the language of religious affiliation makes no sense.
But that is not all. There are other larger issues afoot, which are troubling. More on that in my next post.