Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Pox On Many Houses

It seems that the Department of Health and Human Services, under the aegis of the Affordable Care Act, has promulgated new regulations that require all health insurance plans to cover contraception. Those rules go in to effect April 1st. Apparently, the Catholic Church appealed directly to the President for an exemption for Church-related institutions - hospitals, Universities, and Catholic charities that provide health benefits for their employees. The President smiled, then told them they had one year to comply.

The result has been little more than yet another right-wing freak out. Ross Douthat of The New York Times sees it as yet another example of creeping authoritarianism. Michael Gerson of The Washington Post declared "both radicalism and maliciousness are at work in Obama's decision", showing yet again that remarkable trait among too many pundits: mind-reading. Even the normally staid, supportive E. J. Dionne says that, in this instance, Obama "botched it".

There is another side to this discussion than Catholics harrumphing about Obama and birth control. It was this post* at Crooked Timber that alerted me to it.
[E]mployer-provided health insurance is a form of compensation for work, like plain old cash pay. If I disapprove of drinking, but one of my employees takes the money I pay him and spends it on beer, I have not, in any sense, been forced to buy him drinks. Obviously if I were forced to pay my employees in ‘beer dollars’, or literally in beer, the situation would be different. But medical insurance is not like paying people in ‘contraception dollars’. Being covered for getting your leg broken does not mean being obliged to break a leg, then get it treated. No one is proposing that anyone be forced to take any pill, just because they are covered for it.
To be fair and balanced, as they say, John Holbo engages in a bit of mind-reading in re Douthat and his alleged "real" concerns. I will only marginally defend this because Douthat has a long enough paper-trail to support the alleged "real" concerns Holbo ascribes to him. By and large, however, I tend to itch when anyone claims they "know" what someone they are reading "really thinks" about the subject.

For my purposes, I would like to suggest the following. I believe that Roman Catholic Church should be granted the exemption. I do not believe for one moment "liberal Catholics" (or any other religious group) has been "tossed under the bus". I do not believe, as the teaser for Gerson's column on the homepage of the e-Post reads, that the President is making war on religion.

A couple decades back, there were a rash of cases across the country, localities hauling bereaved parents to court because, in accordance with their religious faith as Christian Scientists, they did not take their seriously ill children to see a doctor and the child died. The parents were charged with what amounted to negligent homicide. These cases were, to me, an abomination, a horrible violation of the separation of church and state. We may find the action, or inaction as the case may be, of the parents unintelligible; we may believe them heartless, crazy, cruel, and guilty of complicity in the death of their own children. Just because we believe that, however, we do not, in the person of the organs of state police power, have any business insisting that our interpretation of events, and the interest the state has in protecting the lives and welfare of children, is the only proper one. Neither should the state ban Pueblo Indians from using peyote in religious ceremonies where its use is proscribed. This isn't a bunch of teenagers using a recreational hallucinogen; it is little different, during Prohibition, from the Catholics still using wine in eucharist.

While Holbo's argument is certainly interesting, and even compelling on some points, I don't accept it for this reason: whether we accept it or not, the Roman Catholic continues to teach that artificial birth control is a sin. While it is true that providing insurance to cover contraception does not require people to use that insurance, it does place institutions who are funded by the Church in the position of supporting practices that go against a tenet of their faith. No different that prosecuting parents who have lost their children for a crime they have not committed, the state has no business forcing a religious institution to do something that goes against its beliefs.

This in no way means that Pres. Obama is anti-Catholic, has turned away "liberal Catholic" supporters, or is waging war on religion. It only means that Pres. Obama is a contemporary, secular moderate, with a deaf ear to certain nuances of religious belief (remember how easily he abandoned his home church once folks raised a stink about his preacher's sermons?) and the reach of federal policy in regards to these matters.

Hazarding a guess, years of litigation lay ahead on this matter.

I, for one, have little sympathy for the Roman Catholic Church, any more than I do my own United Methodist Church and its obstinate refusal to allow clergy ordained under its orders to perform same-sex marriages even in states where they are now legal. I uphold the principle that the integrity of religious institutions needs to be defended; I also uphold my own right to call them ridiculous, purblind, and even troglodytic by upholding principles that can only harm them in the long run.

*A side note. For some reason, the Amish barn-raising scene in the 80's film Witness is brought up. It seems to be an archetype of what boosters of "community" and "voluntarism" believe America should be, and perhaps even was, once upon a time. I find that odd, to say the least. The Amish, in many ways, are similar to Tolkien's Hobbits. Living in what others perceive to be an idyll, it is in fact a staunchly defended idyll, whose existence hinges on the expenditure of a certain largeness of mind of the forces that defend against violence and repression. As both Aragorn and Gandalf make clear to the Hobbits, their Shire only exists because the Rangers and Wizards believe it a thing worthy of defense; had they not patrolled its borders and defended its furthest reaches, the evil and violence of the surrounding world would long ago have swallowed it up. So, too, the Amish; without the beneficence of the state insisting the Amish have the freedom to live as they do, their land and way of life would have vanished long ago.

Virtual Tin Cup

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