March 19, 2012

Rights, Morality and Campaign Politics

I confess to a certain measure of perplexity as I write. The American Catholic Church episcopate (especially) and the leading Republican presidential candidates have now argued repeatedly and strongly in recent weeks that the Obama administration has breeched religious freedom deeply in seeking to guarantee that all US health care institutions, including faith-based ones, provide women in their care with the option of securing contraceptives. The proposed rule is linked to a provision of the recent health care act that requires that all employers providing health insurance ensure that contraceptives are covered under those plans. The Catholic bishops are insisting that this provision be withdrawn so that no business or institution will be required to make sure health insurance plans cover contraception for women. Carried further, no insurance provider will be required to cover women’s contraceptives.

Ensuring discretion to individuals to make personal choices concerning contraception we are told by these religious leaders, violates religious freedom and constitutes an immoral assault on Americans’ First Amendment right to religious liberty. I cannot fathom why. First, as a practical matter, fully 98 percent of American Catholic women practice some form of birth control. Second, the proposed rule mandates only that institutions provide access to reproductive care; individuals and their health care providers may still choose whether to use such methods or not. In short, believers retain their right to believe and to act as they wish. No one is demanding they change their perspectives or behave in ways that do not accord with their own consciences or, presumably, their understanding of the dictates of their faiths. Third, however clumsily the administration might be said to have managed this issue initially, it has since sought reasonably to offer these critics an opportunity for compromise, and in lieu of negotiation, the bishops (and the Republican candidates, for their own reasons) have taken ever more absolutist stands against ensuring the option of such care. Fourth, it is interesting to ask how far this supposed right extends. Shall Jehovah’s Witness health care providers, for example, be permitted to deny blood transfusions to all in their care? Does this institutional understanding of religious freedom have any ethical or moral limits? In short, the proposed federal rule surely allows individuals to believe as they wish and to avail themselves of contraceptive care or not, as they choose. It does nothing to abridge individual’s freedom to practice their faith or to believe as they wish.

In fact, this argument seems not to be about individual religious freedom at all, but instead ensuring institutional privilege to deny adherents, or at least customers, access to a care regimen. I am left pondering why this stance has been taken and why a proverbial political line has been drawn in the sand concerning it. The argument does not stand up under scrutiny, except as a special claim to abridge the civil rights of women who, for whatever reasons, obtain their health care through (mostly) Catholic faith-based institutions. And manifestly, it would otherwise seem outrageous to contend that women should be denied freedom of conscience because they are women. So why argue to the contrary on this matter?

What is more, if this position is more than a little puzzling, what the bishops have not argued is even more perplexing. So far as I can discern, the American Catholic episcopate has not declared loud and public outrage that the United States has practiced rendition and torture, both of which violate Church teachings profoundly. Similarly, bishops have not sent letters home to their faithful urging them to search their consciences as they weigh the pro-torture stands of the three leading GOP presidential candidates. Neither has the hierarchy, so far as I am able to determine, declared vehemently and with volume its moral outrage concerning Congress’ demand that the nation’s facility at Guantanamo Bay remain open. Similarly, the bishops have not indignantly and unanimously protested the extraordinarily high rates of incarceration in the United States, surely a violation of their Church’s social justice teaching.

Finally, one more example of this odd narrowing of questions of morality to issues linked to sexuality and purported institutional religious freedom alone. Taking Catholic social justice teaching seriously, one might imagine US bishops ought to be launching public campaigns to sensitize their adherents and Americans more generally, to the very high rates of hunger and poverty in their midst and demanding that steps be taken to address that situation. The nation’s poverty rate in 2010, for example, stood at 15 percent, higher than at any previous time in more than 30 years. This figure is not an abstraction. It reflects millions of Americans, children particularly, who daily wake hungry, often ill and increasingly without hope. Meanwhile, the GOP candidates have spoken of federal funds wasted on “schemes” of assistance to the poor or unemployed and suggested their principal concern is to help the (employed, presumably) middle class. Yet, none of this has occasioned a torrent of protest from Church officials concerning how such claims contravene Catholic teaching.

For all of these reasons I am left at sea concerning why this political dust-up has occurred at this time and has focused so strongly, albeit indirectly, on abridging women’s rights.  I cannot see that individual religious liberty is under assault, and it is undeniable that far more serious moral outrages are occurring and have been embraced by leading GOP presidential contenders. Nonetheless, these are not the target of massive bishopric publicity campaigns and opprobrium. It is indeed extremely difficult to fathom why.

About the Author

Max Stephenson Jr.

Max Stephenson, Jr. presently serves as Professor of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and Director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. He has published widely on policy, civil society and governance concerns. He is the author most recently, with Laura Zanotti, of Peacebuilding through Community-Based NGOs: Paradoxes and Possibilities, Kumarian Press (2012) and editor with Laura Zanotti of Building Walls and Dissolving Borders: The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space. Ashgate Publishers, 2013.

Max Stephenson Jr.

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Dr. Stephenson’s observations about the unfortunate misdirection in the current “debate” over the “assault on religious liberty” in the United States are cogent. Alas, his essay also affirms the vacuousness of so much in the broader civic discussion during this fevered campaign season of challenges and perils that truly deserve the attention of the body politic. Alas, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has chosen the unfortunate course of insisting that they are the arbiters — dictators? — of whose religious liberty really matters. As Dr. Stephenson noted, that body’s once-admirable commitment to ALL of the church’s teachings on social justice now appears to have atrophied to a sad and regrettable degree.