For a week or so in early February religion was once again at the center of media attention (this time unrelated to the lingering issue of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism). Using powers given her by the “Obamacare” legislation, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human services, issued a regulation concerning the requirement that all employer-provided health insurance must include free coverage of contraception for women. The administration was aware of the fact that Catholics and perhaps other religious groups might have a problem with this. So churches, defined as institutions that provide religious services to their own members only, were exempt from the requirement—but not institutions which, though church-related, provide services to people irrespective of their faith, such as hospitals, schools or social agencies. There is a curious paradox here: In earlier cases the federal courts have decided that public funds could go to religious institutions if they provided useful services to the general public; now these very services are treated as if they constituted a flaw. The underlying assumption is that the proper function of religion is intramural worship—a strange endorsement of the sect as the only true religious institution. There is a further paradox: In a recent case, which involved the firing of a teacher at a Lutheran school, which regarded her as being religious personnel (which she denied), the Supreme Court sided with the school. The decision maintained that the state could not dictate to a church who is or is not performing religious duties; in the matter at issue now, the state asserts the right to tell a church that a service provided by it—such as care for the sick—is unrelated to its religious mission (a proposition which would have startled Mother Teresa and generations of nursing nuns).
Be this as it may, the administration was apparently surprised by the storm of protests unleashed by the HHS regulation. In the fore of the protests were the Catholic bishops and other Catholic leaders, but they were strongly supported by Evangelicals and some Orthodox Jews. As one would expect, some liberal Protestant voices were raised in support of HHS. All the Republican candidates for the presidency enthusiastically and noisily joined the protest. The protesters insisted that the issue here is not women’s health (as HHS claimed), but religious freedom: Neither individuals nor institutions should be coerced by government to act in violation of their faith. This particular action of government must therefore be understood as a direct assault on the freedom of religion guaranteed by the first amendment to the constitution. And here is what, I think, is most interesting: The protesters include people who have long been opposed to contraception (such as Catholic bishops, though, as survey data show, not a majority of lay Catholics), and people who have not considered contraception as religiously or morally wrong (many if not most Evangelicals). That is something new, and worth paying attention to.
Facing the prospect of losing Catholic and other religiously conservative votes, the administration quickly retreated. President Obama himself, flanked by a visibly unhappy Secretary Sebelius, announced that the offending regulation is rescinded: Not only churches but church-affiliated institutions would not be required to offer insurance covering contraception, but women employees would be able to obtain the latter directly from insurance companies, without co-pay (I doubt if the insurance companies are thrilled by that provision). Needless to say, Obama presented the retreat as both a principled and pragmatic compromise (which, let us be fair, it really is). At the time of writing, it is not clear whether this will still the storm. The Republican candidates will probably be reluctant to drop an issue that must be an answer to their prayers (literally, if one is to believe what they say about their personal piety).
Before I proceed with any rigorously value-neutral commentary on this episode, let me offer a disclosure: I find the Catholic position on contraception thunderously unpersuasive. As to the two major religious communities involved, I am neither Catholic nor Evangelical—thus, as we say in Texas, I have no dog in this fight. (As I have avowed on this blog before, I am incurably Lutheran.) But I do agree very much with the protesters’ view that the Obama administration was about to violate constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom in a serious way. That is the issue here, and not women’s health—contraceptive devices are easily and inexpensively available in places other than Catholic hospitals. I also agree (though I am not a lawyer) that the administration’s action goes against a long tradition in American law of solicitude for the demands of conscience (religious or non-religious). The courts have protected the right of Quakers not to go to war, of Jehovah’s Witnesses not to take the oath of allegiance, of anyone who has reasons of conscience for affirming rather than swearing as a witness—or, for that matter, even burning the American flag. It seems to me that the same protection should cover a hospital run by Franciscans who don’t want to hand out condoms (never mind whether one agrees with their rather tortured reasoning on this matter).
What is to be learned from this episode? A number of things: The large expansion of federal power hidden in the innumerable pages of the legislation which established “Obamacare”. Obama’s captivity to his much-vaunted “base”, with its strongly secularist contingent (I have called it an American version of the Turkish ideology of Kemalism—religion is a virus to be kept out of public space, quarantined in religious reservations). The continuing political clout of religion in the United States (Kemalists are always surprised when they come across this—perhaps because they mostly talk to each other). And, contrary to a widespread opinion, the fact that the “culture war” between conservatives and progressives is by no means over—and continues to be politically significant. Each of these lessons would merit extensive discussion. However, I would like to comment here with a different focus—the deepening relationship of Catholics and Evangelicals.
This has been going on for some time in America. In a broader historical perspective, this is something new.
There has been a strongly anti-Catholic tradition among Evangelicals, and Catholics have tended to look on Evangelicalism as a specially unappealing version of Protestantism. The political rapprochement came about (mainly, I think) over the issue of abortion, with other issues being added on —the place of religion in public life, same-sex marriage, pornography—but contraception, important to the Catholic Church and rather marginal for Evangelicals, did not constitute a significant bond. It is generally true that religiously conservative people have more children—thus presumably use less birth control—but Evangelicals, though fertility-friendly, have hitherto not made an issue of this. Time will tell whether contraception in and of itself (that is, apart from the defense of religious freedom) will continue to be a bonding issue between the two communities.
I was an inadvertent participant at what turned out to be an important event in the budding relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals. One of the early items on the agenda of the research center at Boston University which I had founded in 1985 (and which I directed for most of the time since then) was the explosive growth of Pentecostalism in much of the developing world. The growth was very dramatic in Latin America. The Catholic Church was understandably disturbed by this. Some ugly statements about these “Protestant sects” were made by Catholic authorities and there were even some cases of violence against Pentecostals. I talked about this with my friend Richard John Neuhaus, who had recently become a Catholic (he had been a Lutheran when we first met) and who also had good connections with Evangelicals. We both deplored the antagonism between the two communities and thought that a more ecumenical dialogue was called for. We then decided to organize a conference to carry on such a dialogue. The conference met in September 1992 at the Union League Club in New York. I arranged for the British sociologist David Martin, of the London School of Economics, to lecture at the conference. Martin had conducted our research in Latin America; he subsequently extended the research to other parts of the world and became a prominent authority on the Pentecostal phenomenon. I was rather surprised that Neuhaus had invited a number of individuals, Catholics as well as Evangelicals, who had no interest whatever in religious conflict in Latin America. I became somewhat irritated when I realized that Neuhaus himself was not primarily interested in affairs south of the Rio Grande, or in Catholic/Pentecostal relations as such; he was interested in forging an alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States. (I did not really hold this against him; he meant well.)
I had nothing to do with a number of conversations about this, which Neuhaus had with influential individuals from both sides. Among those on the Catholic side were John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York who ordained Neuhaus to the Catholic priesthood, and the Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles. Neuhaus’ most important Evangelical interlocutor was Charles Colson, the former aide in the Nixon White House, who had gone to jail in the wake of the Watergate investigations, and who founded the Prison Fellowship, which has become a major advocate for reform of the criminal justice system. In 1994 Neuhaus and Colson collaborated to produce a document titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”. The document immediately attracted broad attention and it has been (correctly, I think) credited with having been an important step in the new inter-confessional relationship. Most of the document is theological, reflecting Neuhaus’ view (as he put it) that “the Protestant Reformation was a reform movement within the Western Church”—which supposedly is no longer necessary, and therefore no longer a valid reason of separation from Rome, because the desired reforms had been accomplished. Needless to say, the Evangelicals who came aboard did not agree with this Neuhausian re-interpretation of history (neither did I), but they did sign on to a long list of theological statements (all representative of a broadly orthodox Christianity, and critical of liberal deviations from such orthodoxy). I believe it is fair to say that Neuhaus’ concern here was as much political as it was theological (I don’t know about Colson’s—I was only casually acquainted with him). It is also fair to say that, Neuhaus’ foremost political concern was an adamant opposition to abortion. (It remained that until his death in 2009.) In the words of the document: “Abortion is the leading edge of an encroaching culture of death”.
Thus the recent introduction of contraception as a common issue for the Catholic/Evangelical alliance is a new thing, but the alliance has a considerable history behind it. Non-Catholics may have difficulty linking contraception with abortion, but it is noteworthy that one reason for Catholic opposition to the HHS regulation is that the required contraception includes the so-called “morning after pill”—which according to Catholic moral teaching constitutes abortion. But the protesters are empirically correct: This confrontation is not about contraception. It is about freedom of religion. That is a central item of the American political creed, and the Obama White House is right in not wanting to be seen as its adversary.
We know from a mass of survey data that religiously conservative people tend to be politically conservative as well, and therefore tending to vote Republican. This is not only true of conservative Protestants (mostly Evangelicals) and conservative Catholics, but also of Orthodox Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Mormons. What brings them together is not theology, but opposition to an aggressive secularism still powerful in elite culture and strongly represented in the “base” of the Democratic party. Catholics and Evangelicals together make up the largest numbers in this anti-secularist camp. The strengthening of the ties between them is an important political reality. It may be described as a redefinition of who is “we” and who is “them”—the secularists are the “them”. “We” may differ on a lot of things, but we know that we are not “them”. The enthusiastic response of many Evangelicals to the Catholic Rick Santorum may be a significant sign of this shift.