"Must (or Can) the Religious Engage in the Secular Sphere 'Non-Religiously'?"

"Must (or Can) the Religious Engage in the Secular Sphere 'Non-Religiously'?" February 6, 2012

This is part 3 of a debate with Roman Catholic theology graduate student Mary. The broader topic of the debate is whether or not universities, hospitals, and social agencies run by the Catholic Church should be exempted from laws requiring employers to provide their employees health insurance that covers contraception. You can read part 1 and part 2 of the debate, but you need not read them to understand this self-contained discussion about how religious people or institutions should conceive of what they are doing when they act in the public or secular spheres as religious people.

Mary: I’m very curious about what you mean by “public” because it seems as if you define “public” as that which is not strictly religious. Do I understand you properly?

Daniel Fincke: I define public as anything that involves civil interactions. Even a private affair becomes public as soon as civil liberties or civil rights or other laws become relevant to the doings of the parties. We are having a private conversation but it is undergirded by civil laws which put constraints even on this. To that extent the public has an interest in what goes on here. To the extent that there are no civil law issues, this remains entirely private.

I would distinctly define secular as anything that is not strictly religious, anything which appeals to and subjects itself to common standards of reason and morality and practice. When a private church performs tasks which are secular in basic form (i.e., not strictly religious), then it is not doing a strictly religious activity.

Teaching actual science based biology or practicing medicine or administering public goods like adoption or soup kitchens means engaging in activities that the public can take a secular interest in either for employment or receiving services. Just as a religious person may constrain the religious character of the way she does these activities so may a church or mosque or synagogue or temple may be expected to do the same if it means allowing members of other faiths, or of no faith, to receive these services or employment without religious strings attached that would coerce their own consciences.

Mary: Well, it seems, then, that we have an almost insurmountable issue of different definitions. I fear that my responses to your questions will continue to be the same as the one’s I’ve already given because I operate under different ideas of what those words mean.

For me, something becomes secular when it’s not at all religious. In that case, no function of a religious institution is ever secular. Someone taking an interest in or participating in a religiously-run service or good does not then make it not religious, or secular. Allowing all homeless people into your soup kitchen and not just the Catholic ones doesn’t make it a secular activity. Serving the needs of the poor is a hallmark of most religions. A great example is the clergy coalition in Alabama suing the government for preventing their ministry—which consists of counseling, shelter, food, etc.—to immigrants by its harsh immigration laws. 

Considering the law suit has not yet been thrown out on legal grounds, it seems that even the law protects the ministries of these churches. Care of the sick and the idea of the hospitals were long-standing Christian traditions before they were secular ones. I can not agree that something becomes secular because it might be of interest to people with secular values.

For me, something being subject to civil laws doesn’t actually make it something in which the government can necessarily impose itself or interfere. For example, if someone says so to his children, “you cannot bring black people into this house” the government cannot interfere with that decision. Even though the public, i.e. someone outside of that man’s house, is affected. The government can’t say that John Smith up the street has a constitutional right to enter the house even though he is being discriminated against. However, the racist father in that story can’t kill black people because the law doesn’t allow it.

I fear that our definitions of public and secular are what will keep us from ever seeing eye-to-eye on this issue.

Daniel Fincke: Your definition is subject to criticism. It need not be thrown up as a shield from further thinking. How things “started” (if we even understand that accurately), or how the religious person interprets her activities, or how a religious organization interprets its activities are not determinative of a thing’s nature.

A religious individual or a religious institution may in their hearts or in their theological interpretations view an activity as infused with religious meanings but that does not make it distinctively religious in ways that allow religious judgments to trump secular ones when in interaction with people outside your religion.

For example, many religious people think every single thing they do should be infused with religion. Students and teachers at public schools, not just Catholic ones, may want to make all their endeavors “acts of worship”. That does not supersede others’ rights to be treated in distinctly non-religious ways by them when engaged in the fundamentally religion-neutral endeavor of studying biology.

You may interpret the activity as religious and pray to God for strength as you do it and theologically understand it in some larger context. But none of this can rightly affect how you teach the neutral, universal facts of biology or treat students who are non-adherents to your religion and who are only in a classroom with you for the purposes of learning biology. Otherwise religious people would be exempt from all secular laws that deviated in the slightest ways from their religious feelings since no activities could be properly understood as activities without God. On their view all of life is lived in service to God, so religious feelings are supreme over civil law and supreme over demands for respect for non-adherents to their religion. This is why religious people need to learn the difference between their secular and their religious spheres and learn to think in a fairly bifurcated way.

Mary: But the religious person at a public school, in the same way as you, consciously works for an institution completely committed to being non-dogmatic, non-evangelical and neutral in all matters concerning religion. The religious person understands this and must abide by it because that is the mission of the institution.

This isn’t about individual’s privately held beliefs but about religious institutions which are protected and which set up institutions that are private but service the public, optionally should the public want to be served, and which have religious commitments.

Daniel Fincke: But the point is that religious institutions become like religious individuals when they enter the broader political sphere. Just as some religious individuals may find it intolerable that they not let their religious interpretation of their teaching or learning bleed into what they teach, so a religious institutions’ arbitrary feelings about the reproductive habits of their employees need to be constrained when they act as a public citizen and provide employment to the general public.

Mary: And religious people don’t need to live in a bifurcated way—that’s not living in a religious way at all. There are methods of prudence that teach you that you shouldn’t be pulling your students at public school aside and saying “I just want you to know that Jesus loves you” because that doesn’t respect that student’s dignity in that institution. You’re also violating a contract made in good faith if you bring religious teachings into a public school when you acknowledged that you would not.

But a religious person is perfectly free to see all aspects of her life as pertaining to religion even when they act as public citizens. The constitution affords me the right to freely exercise my religion. And insofar as I’ve not made any commitments that I will keep my personal religious views out of certain things, I can be Catholic at my bank and my Church and I will be, thank you very much. I, personally, have no secular sphere. There is no secular world for me. There is one world. I live in one world as a religious person and carry religious commitments with me in that world.

I afford the people in my Church the same dignity as I afford people outside of it. I don’t ask you to pray with me not because I recognize the “secular” character of our friendship but because I recognize your human dignity and your freely-given choice not to pray to God. I ultimately believe that is a God-given freedom! If I were to teach at a public school, that wouldn’t be a secular activity for me.

I would keep my religious views completely out of the school not because I bifurcate things secularly, but because I recognize that societies and Churches flourish in world where there is a separation of Church and state and that the students at the school have a right to be educated in a way that allows their own religious commitments, if they have them or not, to be unviolated by the teacher. No truly religious person could ever commit to bifurcating their lives.

As for “public citizen” I don’t really know how to respond except that for me a public citizen is a politician or someone who works for the government. Unless we’ve committed ourselves in such a way to the public (such as running for office, vowing to protect the government’s public interests and accepting tax-payer funded payment for my services) we are all private citizens. The Church is not telling Rite Aid employees they can’t have birth control, it is telling employees of its institutions who came to work there knowing fully the commitments of that place. The Church-institutions are not saying that if you buy birth control you will be fired, but that they won’t buy it for you. Which is a distinction that you clearly disagree with but that I am committed to as an important one.

Daniel Fincke: Principles about respecting the dignity of students to be free of evangelism in public schools are not “religious”. They are matters of our specific secular civil institutions. If they depended on religious approval, then America could only tolerate those religions that shared this line of thought. As things stand, religions are entitled to exist which dispute this principle theologically as long as they follow the law civilly.

If you have managed to personally reconcile your private faith with your civic values by synthesizing them such that the separation of church and state is a “religious” value and not a distinctly civil one, then that’s great for you. But it’s not necessary of all religions. So either not all religions are fit for civil society or some people learn to bifurcate their religious wishes from their civil compromises for the sake of peace and civil justice and the protections it provides.

In other words, theocrats (which, privately includes not an insignificant number Catholics and Protestants in America) are legally entitled to their views, as long as they keep their theocracy out of public schools and other official actions of government.

I think the term “public citizens” describes expectations of corporations that they act in ways that respect their obligations to and effects on the broader populace. My point is that within the Church’s religious functions it has autonomy to set many laws and rules for its members which do not violate the civil law. When the Church interacts with the rest of the world though it acts as an agent (or agents) with others whom it must respect. When the Church employs such non-adherents it should not be able to implicitly subject such people to its laws about how they should govern their reproduction.

It risks indirectly forcing people into parenthood. That’s quite possibly a human rights violation. It troubles me they do this in private. When they do it in public they cross the line from troubling to illegal. Imagine a world where the Churches grew in power and so did other religious institutions such that they all did corporate functions like making computers and growing our vegetables and they all interpreted each of these functions as a “religious mission”. And imagine the vast majority of employers were religious institutions and they were subjecting employees who didn’t share their religion to their laws implicitly through their employment, then this would essentially collapse the separation of church and state. Here the issue is only the scale, not the effective principle.

You have the last word.

Mary: Ok, well first of all. I can imagine that world. It’s called the European West until about 1400. And many countries in the Middle East right now.

I think it’s absurd to call it “forcing someone into having children.” The only thing that produces children is sex and excepting the issue of rape, any one, including myself, who enters into a sexual union at any time for any reason should know that the first and foremost biological purpose of sex is reproduction. I’ve read the most amazing studies of how everything that attracts people to one another has to do with evolutionary factors in selecting someone who will give you desirable offspring.

In other words, it should come as no surprise to people if they become pregnant after having sex. The idea that we have a fundamental right to avoid the biological purposes of sex while still having it completely and utterly baffles me. Unless the Church-related institution you work at is forcing you to have sex, it is not forcing you to have children. If it is an issue of rape, that is another story which we can talk about at another time.

Furthermore, these employers are not saying that you can’t control birth. You can buy condoms, pull-out, use NFP, or walk into planned parenthood and get discounted oral birth control. It is simply saying that they are a religious institution that provides goods and services with a religious mission and that they will not provide BC because it is a violation of their teachings. It is not an act of discrimination to refuse to provide a method of birth control that is just one method among many. A religious institution does not cease to be religious when it enters the public sphere and its actions don’t stop being religious either. Any employee of a religious institution knows the commitments of that institution prior to being hired and should make the decision to accept employment based on that. So long as they are not being harassed, consistently abused or discriminated against based on their beliefs or non-beliefs, the Church has a right to deny paying for brith control.

Your Thoughts?

In case you have not read either of them, here again are part 1 and part 2 of our debate. Read bonus discussion with Mary on other issues related to Catholicism here.

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