Religious Privilege and Grievance-Based Catholic Identity Politics on Full Display

Religious Privilege and Grievance-Based Catholic Identity Politics on Full Display February 7, 2012

In a column last week, Melinda Henneberger criticized the Obama administration’s refusal to exempt the Catholic Church from requirements it provide for its employees health insurance which would cover birth control at organizations it runs which have secular functions. The column is an extraordinary exemplification of religious entitlement, identity politics, and anti-secular, anti-democratic demands for a government ruled by faith and not by common reason for the common good. Henneberger starts out:

President Obama quoted C.S. Lewis on Thursday morning, and normally that would have made my day.

Because it is especially important and exciting to Henneberger that our secular President, in his capacity as President, expresses solidarity with her Christian identity—regardless of whether this pander to people of the Christian faith indicates a partisan solidarity with them at the expense of solidarity with the millions of unbelieving and non-Christian people who would prefer a religiously neutral president. It gives her a special rush to know he’s like her in a way that makes him not like one of those non-Christians.

The president is good at talking about his Christian faith, as he did at a National Prayer Breakfast, and ought to do more of it if he wants to relieve Americans of some of their most basic misconceptions about him.

Right, it’s his job to prove he meets that litmus test of Christian belief to qualify him for public office, lest the American people justifiably throw him out. Very Constitutional advice.

But more than I want to hear him tell how the Rev. T.D. Jakes drops by the Oval now and again,

And here she sets up her demands from religious privilege. And note, Obama hanging out with some black religious leader is not really doing it for her desire to feel like he shares a sufficient religious identity with her. As a Catholic what’s really important is how he’s going to pander to nuns. And neither is it enough that the President of what is supposed to be a secular nation, which is supposed to be neutral on the value of religion, is explicitly endorsing the value of religious faith over lack of religious faith by having such unconstitutional events as the National Prayer Breakfast. No she feels entitled to some practical demonstrations of his commitment to legislating by faith and not just giving faith symbolic support by discussing what his private Christian life is like.

Despite sounding throughout parts of her article like something of a progressive politically (at least insofar as she favors the Affordable Care Act), Henneberger’s true test for Obama’s sincerity of faith is that he give special conscience exemptions to Roman Catholic institutions which would allow them to deny health coverage for the contraceptive needs of their employees who perform non-religious functions (like education, health care provision, etc.) at their non-religious institutions. If Obama does not do this, this is not to be taken as evidence that he has a different view of secular justice and of the meaning of the 1st Amendment than she does. No, it is to be taken as proof that his faith is insincere. Is this because she implicitly realizes that only someone with a faith-based identity who privileges the faithful in their legislating would give such an exemption? Does she realize it has no secular justification and that it would take a President and legislators who rule by faith-based judgments to approve of it?

Presidents and the Congress should not make public decisions according to the dictates of private faiths. They should legislate according to neutral rational standards which are in principle acceptable to all because non-adherents to their particular faiths (whether members of other faiths or atheists) will be subject to those laws. If they have only a faith based rationale and no secular justification then essentially such legislation subjects a faith’s non-adherents to that faith’s laws in ways that violate non-adherents’ own rights of conscience. It effectively conscripts someone involuntarily into that religion to that extent.

But let’s say Obama’s decision here should or could be a litmus test of his faith. Let’s imagine for a moment that that was not egregiously unConstitutional. Obama is a liberal Protestant. Why should that faith give special privileges to a reactionary and regressive form of Catholicism? Not only would that violate Obama’s reason-based political conscience as a progressive Democrat, but it would violate what are likely his private faith beliefs about the supremacy of reproductive rights over theocratic rule. Why does Henneberger want Obama to violate his faith?

Henneberger’s implicit assumption is that the right wing’s reactionary amalgamation of religio-political fundamentalism is faith itself. Now, that does not sound very pluralistic or tolerant of people of different faiths; does it? Any true person of faith (and anyone worthy of public office!) will automatically identify with and acquiesce to the demands of right wing reactionary regressive faiths. Deviating from them, either for reasons of secular political conscience or liberally religious conscience reveals you as not a person of true faith.

So, not only is faith a litmus test for a fit leader, and not only does Henneberger demand (from a shockingly bloated sense of privilege) that he give multitudes of religious identity markers that closely match her own, but the only kind of legitimate faith she will accept from the liberal Protestant President is one that puts the consciences of regressive Catholic bishops over the consciences and health care rights of their employees who perform non-religious tasks.

This also means, by the way, putting the consciences of the Church hierarchy not only over their employees who are godless (whose consciences are obviously irrelevant), but he must put their concerns even over that resounding 98% majority of Roman Catholic women who use contraception. This liberal Protestant President can’t be a true man of faith if he does not help a group of male leaders who refuse equal participation from women in their hierarchy to make it harder for their poorer women employees to prevent becoming pregnant against their own wishes. So, the litmus test of faith—for a politically and religiously liberal Protestant even—is whether he will support a policy imposed by a minority of religious men over a majority of their female employees (of mixed faiths and no faith) requiring them to have children against their wills.

Am I not yet clear enough yet? The rights of Catholics to follow Catholic guidelines on contraception are not threatened. No one is forcing them by law to take contraception. They will not have to use the health coverage provided in that way. These men want to stop other people, of dissenting religious or non-religious beliefs, from controlling whether they get pregnant according to their own consciences, as a condition of employment. And, perversely, they do this in the name of freedom of conscience.

Now maybe, Henneberger thinks that people of faith will stick together and let each other impose their arbitrary beliefs and values which admit of no secular justification as a sort of gentleman’s agreement between equally arbitrary, authoritarian, and imposing faiths. The Protestants will accept the demands of the Catholics on contraception even if they’re a little extreme since they both have vested interests in legislating their common religious beliefs about abortion and gay second class citizenship.

But maybe the kind of faith Obama has is not the authoritarian kind that wants to legislate for others but the kind that has faith that people will (or only should) do the right thing without religious coercion. Maybe his faith is that getting people to be moral does not mean stripping them of the access to do what they want that you disapprove of on faith grounds. If the hierarchy of the Church had this kind of faith, they would let their spiritual and moral and philosophical insights and examples speak for themselves, and people who were rationally persuaded of their judgment, or were merely religiously loyal, would voluntarily refuse all barriers to pregnancy. But the authoritarian Church hierarchy is decidedly weak in this kind of faith. They want to control people by hindering their access to avoid pregnancy. Who cares if these women don’t want to get pregnant? The Church will stand in the way through whatever means the government will give it. Maybe Obama and other liberal religious people (and hopefully even some Catholics?) think that’s weak faith and a form of human arrogance and authoritarianism. Here is Henneberger’s statement of her complaint:

I want to know why he repaid Sister Carol Keehan, who carried health-care reform around on her back for him, with a betrayal that could lose him the Catholic vote and his reelection bid.

If that’s what happens, he’ll have no one to blame but himself, after a recent edict by his Health and Human Service Department effectively denied conscience protections to church-run schools, hospitals and social service agencies, which under his Affordable Care Act must provide free contraception to employees, in violation of church teaching.

To review, there would be no Affordable Care Act without Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association, who incurred the wrath of the bishops for standing up for the legislation, and for the truth that there isn’t any abortion funding in it.

There would be no Affordable Care Act if not for Democratic abortion foes in the House, notably Bart Stupak (Mich.), who for his trouble was reviled by his fellow party members, accosted by critics in airports and sent at least one death threat. He also lost his job over it, deciding to retire after the fight, at the end of his term.

So, too, will there be no Affordable Care Act if Catholics swing the other way in the fall.

Wow. So, let me get this straight, in our secular pluralistic democracy, our President, elected primarily by Democrats and independents is supposed to cave to regressive right wing religious demands as payback to quasi-progressive Catholic Democrats who negotiated with regressive right wing religious theocrats on his behalf. Now he owes the Catholic Democrats a solid by capitulating to the right wing authoritarians who want their employees to be subject to Catholic teachings as a condition of employment?

And he owed Bart Stupak, a regressive Democrat, who put deference to the authority of right wing, patriarchal religious authorities over the interests of the vast majority of Democratic women and men who support reproductive rights, and made sure that a health care law arbitrarily excluded government funding for a perfectly legal (and often morally vital) medical procedure because of the arbitrary dictates of the Roman Catholic faith? Sister Keehan is supposed to be celebrated for convincing the bishops that all the ways Democrats were strong armed into letting arbitrary religious demands dictate that law should be adequate to their liking? Democrats, including Obama, owe a debt of gratitude for that?

Mr. Stupak sure didn’t deserve death threats. But he sure deserved to be rebuked by Democrats. And Henneberger is defending a Church which tries to force its will in a liberal democracy by routinely threatening to withhold sacraments from elected officials who do not make Catholic teachings into law but who rather honor the separation of Church and State. And, hypocritically, these bishops use this tactic of withholding sacraments to try to push their way against only left wing politicians—not the right wing ones who violate Church teachings on torture, just war, or social obligations to the poor. If these religious bullies can try to muscle their way to dominance over secular law and make it that even as they get tax free land and government subsidies for their charities no one’s tax dollars can help the poor get abortions, then secular citizens have every right to be mad as hell and challenge the Congresspeople who put their religious faith over their commitments to the Constitution.

And so now Obama, who represents a secular political party that has fought for decades to preserve the full legal rights to unencumbered access to abortion, owes a member of that same party (Mr. Stupak) who betrayed this core value of his party on wholly religious grounds in a secular democracy? He owes this man and his patriarchal religion extra measures to keep these women from being able to even avoid pregnancy? And he is to do this when there is no secular justification to add this extra hurdle to their lives? And the quasi-progressive nun who got what she wanted from him in terms of abortion restrictions and now turns her back on him is not the ingrate but Obama is?

So thanks to the Catholics not only will poor women suffer extra financial burdens in exercising their legal rights to abortion, even though it is a legal life determining health care decision and sometimes a life and death one at that, but now also if these women have the misfortune of working for a Catholic employer they need extra hurdles to avoiding pregnancy in the first place to be thrown in their path?

And if the liberal President of a secular nation, who is personally a man of liberal Protestant faith does not do this, then he has stabbed progressive Catholics in the back, and he is not a man of true religious faith, and he deserves to lose an election because of a religious bloc of votes?

President Romney won’t be forcing nuns to dole out free diaphragms in violation of their religious freedom and the Constitution that guarantees it.

Oh yes, Governor Romney, respecter of consciences. Unless, of course, they are atheist consciences—in which case they can be entirely disrespected and subjected to forced baptisms posthumously. He has such a wonderfully liberal and American sense of religious conscience that he baptized his staunchly anti-religious father a Mormon after he died. (Don’t worry, Bill Maher subsequently unbaptized him last weekend, so the man’s an atheist again.) In a nutshell: the only kind of conscience that deserves respect when it comes to religion is religious consciences. This makes me eager to have him run our secular democracy. I am sure as an atheist he will legislate in ways not at all prejudiced against me. He might claim me for Mormonism after I’m dead, but I’m sure he won’t violate my freedom of conscience in any serious ways while he is in office and I’m alive.

And here’s a fun fact, nuns will not have to “dole out diaphragms”. The Church just has to cover health insurance providers who will do the part of taking care of employees’ reproductive health care needs.

In fact, under him there won’t be any health-care reform at all.

Except in Massachusetts!

(Yes, I refuse to call that reform the O-word, although I might change my mind if the president doesn’t make it up to Sister Carol).

Oh snap! No she di’in’t! Now Obama can’t refuse her!

Newt Gingrich often says that Obama has “declared war on the Catholic Church.” Mitt Romney, too, talks about the president’s “assault on religion.’’ But the worst part is that they aren’t making this up.

Actually—another fun fact: they are making it up. Obama has not assaulted religion or declared war on the Catholic Church. Literally. There is no declaration of war. There is no proclamation against the Roman Catholic Church. It was not signed on parchment with a quill pen and it has not sent executive orders to destroy Catholic church buildings and enforce disbelief in Jesus, the Pope, the sacraments or Holy Mother Church. No Catholics will be forced to have abortions, use contraception or have guilt-free sex. They can engage in their religion just as before. And Obama just went and affirmed the Christian faith explicitly for Henneberger by having an unconstitutional National Prayer Breakfast and by quoting C.S. Lewis in ways that had the potential to make her all glowy. This is a man at war with religion?

This language of war is misleading, inflammatory rhetoric. A disagreement over the extent to which the conscience of the Catholic hierarchy should restrict the health care options of people who perform non-religious tasks is in no way an assault or a war on religion.

And evoking the language of assault troubles me on another level. Because I can imagine a Protestant who is pro-contraception, single, poor, and adamantly against abortion with no exceptions. I can imagine her being employed by a badly paying Catholic charity or hospital or school—partially even out of common Christian faith. I can imagine her unable to afford contraception because of her Catholic employer, despite her own beliefs that it’s okay. I can imagine her being sexually assaulted and pregnant against her conscience. I can imagine her forced by her own pro-life beliefs to have to have the baby, without a husband, years before she’s ready, disrupting her education or career plans, with all sorts of added post-traumatic stress disorder from birthing her assailant’s son.

The Church that throws up roadblocks to her autonomous expression of her own moral conscience to make it harder for her to avoid this scenario is the one who wants special liberty to trample other people’s autonomy and their ability to live their lives as they wish. Of course, no woman need be against abortion or celibate to deserve complete autonomy over her reproductive life. But I use this illustration to demonstrate how even a conservative, staunchly anti-abortion religious woman can have her conscience violated and her life tragically disrupted by this faith-based law—let alone all those liberals whose inadequately authoritarian faiths, or whose outright godlessness, are matters of suspicion and contempt to the likes of Gingrich, Romney, and Henneberger.

Finally Henneberger’s ressentiment, identity politics, persecution complex, and anti-American theocratic leanings come to full bloom:

But now the Obama administration has handed his critics an example of an action that fits nicely with the narrative that he’s a secularist who looks down on believers.

Yes, Henneberger, judger of the sincerity of other people’s faiths discerns contemptuously that it is Obama looking down on her. Of course the condescending elitists here are not the paternalistic Catholic hierarchy which wants its own followers, and even its non-Catholic employees, to be coerced away from control of their reproduction and have babies they aren’t ready for (or may never want). They’re champions of conscience. This is the Catholic Church that won’t turn any pedophile priests over to secular authorities but instantly excommunicated a nun for allowing a woman’s life to be saved with an abortion rather than let her die. That was some fine respect for conscience in ambiguous moral matters. I guess that nun’s faith and her conscience are irrelevant since they violated the Church’s edicts. The pregnant woman had to die. No questions. No deviation from orders. These true champions of conscience and people of superior moral judgment should be allowed to look down on not only their flock but anyone they employ, for whatever purpose.

And secularist is not a dirty word. America is secularism. Secularism is the cornerstone of our liberties. Political secularism is the kernel of the freedom of conscience which keeps us from being an oppressive theocracy. It is what makes the freedom of religion possible. It is not at all incompatible with being a person of faith. A person of faith can believe that his faith flourishes best where he has no power to coerce others legally (or through terms of employment) to either adopt his faith or act according to its precepts or his interpretation of them. Such a person might even think that the only morally and intellectually valuable kind of faith was the kind that could persuade free people under the open conditions that a secular society make possible. Such a religious believer might think political secularism, by offering individuals the possibility of freedom from all religious coercion, is a precondition of true faith in those cases where people embrace their religions anyway.

I am against all kinds of faith because it is a form of willfully believing more than evidence allows or—worse even—willfully believing completely contrary to what the evidence indicates. But even an ardent atheist like I can nonetheless still at least appreciate and respect that some religious people are as genuinely committed to secular political principles as I am and appreciate our common civic bonds and values. Can the Catholic hierarchy, or the Catholic laity who are foaming at the mouth with identity-politics-based ressentiment, appreciate at all that some political secularists are as committed to faith and religious belief as they are—even when their reason leads them to think the Catholic Church is in the wrong sometimes, and even when they refuse to let the Church always act with impunity and be a law unto itself when its actions affect unwilling others’ lives?

Your Thoughts?

I also debated a Catholic theology student about this issue of Catholic demands for exemptions from the Affordable Care Act, in the posts below:

Part 1: “Should Catholic Employers Be Exempted From Paying For Health Insurance Covering Contraception?”

Part 2: “What Are The Limits of Church Authority In the Public Sphere?”

Part 3: “Must (or Can) the Religious Engage in the Secular Sphere ‘Non-Religiously’?”

"Demonization, in the name of a purity of ideals, is just another way of rationalizing ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."
"Agreed 100%, these types are so far left of liberalism yet still have the temerity ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."
"Nods--I know my daughter is using it that way. I think women are doing men ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."
"You are most probably right.An interesting discussion on late nigh Woman's Hour BBC R4 last ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."

Browse Our Archives