War on Religion? President Obama, Catholics, and Everybody Else

War on Religion? President Obama, Catholics, and Everybody Else February 7, 2012

It’s war.

At least according to some, President Obama has declared a war on religion.  This is the latest attack designed to make the President look like an infidel. In the last four years, the President’s opponents have branded him: 1) a liberal Christian; 2) a follower of liberation theology; 3) a secret Muslim; and now, 4) an anti-Christian bigot determined to destroy churches and freedom of religion.

The “war on religion” is interwoven, somewhat subtly in most cases, with an implicit charge of anti-Catholicism.  When the Obama administration released regulations insisting that religious institutions that serve the public and whose employees come from diverse (or no) religious backgrounds must include access to birth control for those who choose to use birth control, the Roman Catholic hierarchy responded angrily.  From their pulpits, prelates, priests, and pundits declared that the government has launched a war on the church and raised the specter of anti-Catholic bigotry urging the faithful to fight back.

American Catholics can rightly worry about anti-Catholicism.  In the 19th century, the Protestant majority discriminated against Catholics in often sensational, vile, or violent ways.  It is not, however, bigotry to point out that it isn’t the 19th century any more. Since 1960, Catholicism has become mainstream in every aspect in American life.  Indeed, Catholics make up the majority on the Supreme Court, Catholics hold a commanding number of seats in Congress, large numbers of Catholics teach at prestigious colleges and universities, whether they are religious schools or not. The media is chock-full of authors, professors, artists, filmmakers, analysts, and pundits who happen to be Catholic.

To be Catholic in 21st century America is to be part of one of the most successful immigrant communities in our nation’s religious history.

Crying persecution when a group reaches the height of cultural influence is unseemly and perhaps disingenuous.  Catholics are not a persecuted 19th century minority group now, and the Catholic Church is hardly an oppressed institution—Catholicism a massive social, economic, and political force.  And Catholics have a big stake in the common good for all Americans.

However in-artfully the Obama administration unveiled the regulations, everyone knows that we now live in a fully pluralistic society—and that religious pluralism raises some serious questions about the Catholic Church’s plea to be exempted from providing access to birth control at institutions employing and serving the larger public.  These questions go to the heart of what is means to be a faithful believer and a good citizen.

There are millions of religious Americans who pay taxes or follow government regulations that support something to which they morally object. Quakers and Mennonites pay taxes for the military and often serve in non-combat settings during war.  Jewish and Muslim taxes support subsidies for pork farmers and shrimp fisheries.  Mainline Protestants provide public funds to faith-based groups who convert people away from liberal Protestant churches.  Christian Scientist taxes go to Medicare and the National Institutes of Health.  Fundamentalists support student loan programs for future ministers at Harvard Divinity School.  Atheists fund military chaplains.  LGBT Christians and Jews pay the salaries of judges who rule against their desire to marry.  Is the government trampling upon the religious liberties of all these people, too?  No.  All these groups practice their faith in tension or tandem with ethical commitments without accusing others of bigotry.

Catholics might think that they are being singled out having their money go to something that offends them.  They are not.  The success of American Catholicism means that Catholics are not special and they get to be treated like everyone else.  We all pay for things we like; we all pay for things we don’t like. Everybody is offended by something, somewhere, by some program, somehow.  The American ethical conscience often bends like a reed in a complicated, diverse society.

Americans put up with the offense for a very good reason: The government is not a church.  The government attempts to represent the interests and well-being of the whole public by providing military defense, helping farmers, assisting those who serve prisoners and the poor, caring for the elderly, fostering scientific research, supporting students, and giving soldiers someone to talk to or pray with on the battlefield.  And yes, part of the public good is that women get to choose if and when they have babies.  The government funds all this with a common pool of tax money and a mix of public and private services without theological tests available to all Americans—no matter what Quakers, Mennonites, Jews, Muslims, Methodists and Episcopalians and Lutherans, Christian Scientists, Southern Baptists, atheists, or even Roman Catholics think, teach, and proclaim in their traditions and congregations.  Everybody participates.  And everybody works out the tensions in creative, faithful, and theologically rich ways.  Indeed, the tensions are the source of American religious vitality.

It is easy to accuse the government of violating religious freedom.  But what, exactly, is a secular government to do?  Set up the Governmental Office of Theological Ethics to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whose taxes go for what programs, develop a strategy for exemptions, determine which institutions serve the public and which do not, adjudicate between conflicting moral and religious systems, punish those who step on another’s ethical prohibition?  Do only the biggest religious groups get the government to assuage their ethical qualms?  Or, should we bag secular government altogether and become a theocracy?  Should government services be earmarked on a percentage basis toward the religious affiliation of taxpayers? Perhaps all religious groups should become sects and provide services for only those who share their theological views.

Or maybe we should keep working at the restless and ever-evolving tension between being religious freedom and separation of church and state in our wildly diverse nation.

This isn’t a war on religion.  It is just America.

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