Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
Of the many-splendored ways President Obama has failed to meet the test of leadership, perhaps none is more fundamentally threatening than his disdain for religious liberty. Whether or not you are a believer, the actions of this administration towards the religious community affect you.
There has been a lot of news on this front lately. We’re letting gay people get married now – you may have heard about it – and it’s barely a question as to whether the various state marriage amendments will survive the next few years. The legal challenges were brought almost before the ink dried on the recent Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and California’s Prop 8. In keeping with the strange tendency of Americans in recent years to make every stirring of their genitals into a moral crusade akin to ending slavery, it is increasingly déclassé to voice support for that limited, bigoted definition of “marriage” we so thoughtlessly used for the last few millennia.
Suddenly, Americans are not just debating an issue of legal benefits for same-sex couples. They’re issuing fatwas against people who make chicken sandwiches, because the restaurant owners declined to affirm this latest interpretation of a previously non-controversial institution.
We’re also counting down to the implementation of Obamacare and on August 1st the HHS mandate celebrated its first birthday. This provision of Obamacare, which requires employers – including religious employers like the Catholic Church – to provide birth control and abortifacient drugs, was instituted and promoted in direct contravention of the consciences of those religious employers (oh, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act). The administration’s response to this entirely foreseeable objection to the mandate was befuddlement that Catholics (Catholics!) would refuse to pony up for birth control.
After a months-long campaign that saw Catholics and Protestants actually working together to try to force the administration to insert conscience protections, a “compromise” was reached: Team Obama magnanimously agreed to delay enforcement of the mandate until January.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been at the forefront of cataloging these incursions against the rights of Americans. Some of the other challenges facing religious liberty can be found here. A few other examples:
- Catholic foster and adoption services in several states forced to shutter due to refusal to place children with gay or unmarried couples
- Discrimination against small house churches when using public spaces
- Lawsuits against businesses and religious groups related to rental space or services denied to same-sex couples
“So what,” you may say to yourself aloud, discomfiting those around you, “if gay people get married or Catholics have to fork over a little of that Vatican money for birth control pills?” And, so what, you may further inquire (silently to yourself this time), if bigots are called out on their bigotry and banished from the public square?
The short answer is that if they can do it to people you disagree with, they can do it to you too.
One of President Obama’s preferred formulations when trying to mollify the religious community is his fervent belief in a “freedom to worship.” This differs from that “free exercise” of religion we thought was in effect. If one presumes that politicians rarely say things in public without a team of speechwriters parsing every phrase and syllable, it follows that “freedom to worship” holds a particular meaning in the mind of the President — distinct from “freedom of religion.”
This distinction means that traditional religious groups would be free to restrict the practice of their religion to what they do in church, synagogue, mosque, or druidic oak grove of some sort. Insofar as they are permitted by the government to be public entities, they would have the liberty to refrain from preaching in support of chastity and marriage. They would be unbound by the demand to evangelize in public. Businesses operated by religious entities or informed by religious sentiment would have the complete freedom to provide abortion and birth control to employees in violation of the explicit dictates of their consciences. Their right to face fines, penalties, and perhaps a visit from the IRS for failure to comply would be enshrined.
Twitter has conditioned us to think in slogans, so allow me to attempt a Twitter-friendly summation of President Obama’s position on religious liberty: “Keep your views in your pews.”
Based on the actions of this administration, we can only conclude that the ultimate goal is to curtail the public role of faith communities in this country, removing an obstacle to the implementation of well-meaning big government programs. I’m no constitutional law professor, but my reading of the material indicates the government simply does not have the authority to restrict religious expression in this way, no matter how much “free” healthcare they dangle in our faces.
Many, though not all, of the major religions place a responsibility on the adherents to spread the good news. In the case of Christianity, it is an explicit directive from the earliest days of the Church – indeed, from Jesus Christ Himself. After all, to paraphrase the noted atheist Penn Jillette, if you knew what it took to save souls and enjoy eternal life, what sort of misanthrope would you be if you kept it to yourself? Eroding the legitimacy of public expressions of belief, as Obama’s policies do, will lead believers to violate their conscience or lead government to violate the rights of those believers.
From the start, there has been tension in this country about the role of God and the Church in civic life. The government’s comfort with a conscientious religious community seems to have diminished, inversely correlated with government’s perception of its own active role in the lives of the citizenry. The Obama administration’s approach to religious liberty issues seems bent on driving the community of believers from the public square and depriving them simultaneously of their rights to free exercise of religion — and free speech.
Whether you believe in God, or have perfect faith that God does not exist, the precedent this sets should unnerve you.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.” Whatever your beliefs, your conscience and the consciences of your fellow citizens most emphatically do not belong to Caesar.
Let’s hope (and pray) that Obama’s failure to protect religious liberty results in a failure to achieve his policy goals, which have proven so antithetical to it.