Imagine yourself as an Orthodox Jewish owner of a local kosher delicatessen. Things are going well until, one day, for whatever reason, the government passes a law requiring that all food outlets serve pork. What are you to do?
Bishop William Lori presented this hypothetical to Congress last week in the wake of Health and Human Service Department’s mandate that Catholic hospitals provide contraception. It is not a perfect comparison, but it underscores a tension between perceived social good and the religious principles of an accepted faith.
Some have said the lesson of the HHS controversy is simply about management. Social goods and services just need to be delegated better. But sooner or later, we need to let go of the temptation to draw from the never-ending pool of compromise.
Looking at this issue as a matter of entitlement reform genuinely overlooks the cultural elephant in the room. What some see as the clumsiness of the welfare state may actually be society’s confusion about its prioritization of values.
Despite our fondness for ideological purity, we ask our political leaders to be walking contradictions. We ask each politician to be two different yet compatible people: a political one and a religious one.
The guiding presumption here, embodied by the HHS mandate, is that we deem secularism impartial. It is the foundation everyone shares, and individual people can add to it privately as they choose. The statesman is expected to embrace a sort of civil secularism, where his first principles, moral codes and sense of rights come from a view of the ideal, fair society.
Sure, this secularism tolerates the religious sprinkles of “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance or Christmas as a national holiday. But it also holds that universal, consequential matters can only be decided objectively, apart from the irrationalities of religion.
In the United States, this way of thinking does not translate to a rise in atheism. Instead, there is a growing trend of the modernized religion — a modified faith, grounded in age-old tradition yet at the same time mutable enough to accommodate the times.
Certainly, this overarching civic reverence is not always at odds with religion. Civil virtues often protect and complement religious ones. Our jurisprudential history is full of constitutional defenses of religious activity.
However, the HHS mandate is a matter of divine apples and oranges. It is a battle of competing requirements. On one hand, certain American mores have decided that contraception is a matter of civic rights. Logically, civic secular morality calls for the protection of these rights. On the other hand, the morality of the Catholic Church deems such action abhorrent and sinful.
I agree, largely, that the legislative specifics of this controversy could be solved with some general common sense. But to next wipe one’s hands clean ignores the mandate’s guiding mentality, which will remain culturally fixed to our generation well beyond this dilemma.
It is crucial to understand that until the tremendous backlash, the Obama administration had no moral qualms about forcing the Catholic Church to violate its core beliefs directly. The hand of the state unwaveringly inserted itself as a barrier to their path to God.
This choice was not an act of welfare-minded clumsiness. It was conscious prioritization, and we need to explore its justification. The issue is not that the Obama administration missed an opportunity to compromise. The issue is that in a conflict between civil secularism and the faith-based principles of the Church, the former won.
On a lower level, this is a question of liberty in the modern state. On a fundamentally more important plane, the question is: Is natural law still supreme in our system of law?
It is profoundly naïve to believe that two codes of rights — natural rights grounded in faith and God and civil rights grounded in reason and philosophy — are mutually compatible if only they are relegated to the right spheres. Stemming from disparate foundations, these two understandings of rights, duties and morals will conflict again. Institutions of God will not defer to the proscriptions of man. The HHS mandate hits exactly this tension, and our generation will not be able to avoid these choices.
The sound bite-driven current presidential campaign makes this issue seem like a last-chance grasp at theocracy on the behalf of the Right. This could not be further from the truth. Instead, the HHS mandate is a sobering reminder that if society hopes to separate church and state, the former must occasionally be protected from the latter. Our national conscience cannot tolerate anything else.
Harry Graver is a sophomore in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.