by Jonathan Merritt
When the Obama administration announced mandatory coverage of contraceptives in January of last year as part of sweeping healthcare reform, religious conservatives were incensed. Roman Catholics were angry because the church prohibits use of birth control, even though most congregants ignore the teaching. Evangelicals were upset because religious non-profits were not exempt from the mandate, which also covers drugs that induce abortions. The two faith communities found themselves to be valuable allies.
In response, the administration announced an accommodation for faith-based nonprofits that would not require those organizations to pay for the coverage. Instead, employees could obtain private, stand-alone policies from third parties that provide the same services at no cost. Religious leaders responded by calling the concession an "accounting gimmick," claiming that organizations would end up paying for contraception anyway through raised premiums.
Now the President has announced another round of revisions, perhaps quickened by judicial pressures resulting from more than 40 lawsuits. The new rules broaden the number of organizations who can "opt out" of the mandated coverage. Faith-based hospitals and universities who object to providing contraception for religious reasons are no longer forced to provide coverage.
Religious conservatives have predictably shrugged off the announcement. Judie Brown of the American Life League said that the Obama administration continues "to treat our country's conscience like a jailer." Even the level-headed Michael Gerson called it a "parlor trick" in The Washington Post.
In USA Today, writer Tom Krattenmaker countered that the debate really isn't about religious freedom:
Given the swift and hostile reaction by many in the Christian Right gallery, you have to wonder why the president and his people bothered extending this olive branch. Has it ever been clearer that the culture warriors are more interested in a fight than a compromise solution, or that complaints about religious freedom under attack are greatly overblown?
As evidence that evangelicals' care more about cultural dominance than religious freedom, Krattenmaker points to a new survey from the Barna Group. While 71% of evangelicals say they are "very concerned" about the restriction of their religious freedoms, the study also said a majority believe that Judeo-Christian values deserve preference in our country. In other words, conservative Christians seem to care mostly about protecting a particular kind of religious freedom: their own.
Barna President David Kinnaman said the data showed a "double standard" and said "they cannot have it both ways."
With this in mind, Krattenmaker said,
Conservative Christian cries of "religious liberty" violations often are, in truth, complaints about the decline in conservative Christian power and prerogatives in an America that is growing ever more religiously diverse.
I find myself torn on the matter. On the one hand, I agree with the 63% of Americans who believe that increased access to contraception is a good thing. It has been shown to lead to a decline in abortions, and as a pro-life evangelical, that is positive. On the other hand, I oppose the use of abortion-causing drugs and I'm troubled that our government has lumped these into the category of "contraception" when they seem to be something altogether different.
The religious beliefs of houses of worship and faith-based nonprofits must be protected. Indeed, they must be if we wish to promote and protect religious liberty, which is one of our most beloved liberties. At the same time, we cannot expect the government to offer for-profit companies-even those with religious roots-identical treatment. We are a country of laws and companies like retail giant Hobby Lobby cannot sidestep abiding by the laws of our land, whatever those may be. The same would be true, for example, if a retail chain with liberal Christian views wanted to withhold the portion of their taxes used to fund what they believe is an unjust war.
This debate is predictably messy, and religious Americans must grow comfortable wading through complex issues such as this one. As we wrestle over how to best preserve religious freedom in an increasingly pluralistic society, the faithful can expect to have these sorts of rigorous debates with increasing frequency.
SOURCE: Religion News Service
Jonathan is a faith and culture writer whose hundreds of articles have appeared in outlets like USA Today, The Atlantic, and National Journal. His most recent book is "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars."