Pragmatism vs. Principle: Contraception and the 1st Amendment

Monday, February 13th, 2012

This week the White House offered a compromise to the Roman Catholic church regarding the earlier health care bill’s requirement that all hospitals (including Roman Catholic ones)  be required to provide access to artificial contraceptives to their patients.  The White House compromise was, in effect, to mandate that the insurance companies pay for the contraceptives rather than the church related hospitals.  Predictably, the American Council of Roman Catholic bishops rejected this compromise because it failed to address the fundamental problem of religious liberty. Even the “compromise” failed to understand that religious liberty is not actually intended primarily to protect the budgets or even the teaching of some religious body per se, but the protection of individual believers who refuse to be coerced to participate in something which violates their religious conscience.

It is not a question, fundamentally, of “who pays for the contraceptives” but an actual point of conscience to those who serve in these hospitals (not to mention that quite a few Roman Catholic hospitals are self-insured, and the bill also mandates contraceptives which are abortive).  As I shared in my last blog, Protestants may not agree with the specific position of the Roman Catholic church about contraceptives, but we stand shoulder to shoulder with them on the larger principle of religious liberty.  (As an aside, the reason the Roman Catholics tend to have more specific guidance on matters like birth control, when compared with Protestants is that Roman Catholics, as a rule, tend to see issues from the widest possible lens.  They see the theological relationship between birth control, marriage between a man and a woman, prohibition against abortion etc.. as all part of one issue, whereas Protestants tend to separate issues and tackle each one on its own).

The first amendment to the constitution clearly says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  It is this latter clause which is at stake here.  The White House thought a pragmatic solution was all that was required because it would allow the Roman Catholic Church to participate in the program and not “lose face.”  What was not understood was this was not a technical problem which required a technical solution.  To say, “insurers pay, not the hospital” is a technical “solution.”  But, the issue is not technical, it is conceptual.  It has to do with religious liberty.  This is about the first amendment, not merely about who pays for contraceptives.

I will stand with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters just like I did with our Islamic friends when they wanted to build a mosque near the site of 9/11.   Even if you use contraceptives or, like me, you long for the day when Muslims recognize the Lordship of Jesus Christ, that is not the point.  It is a question of religious liberty.  If the government can tell Muslims where they can and cannot build a mosque, or tell Roman Catholics that they must provide contraceptive services, then none of us can expect to enjoy for long the “free exercise of our faith.”



  • Dan Owsley says:

    I appreciate your thoughtful response to this issue. On a different, but related note: In your opinion, is the United States today a Christian or pagan nation? Is God worshiped in our land, or are gods worshiped? Is God or mammon our master? Whatever our constitution may say, our nation is held accountable before God. The “freedom of religion” clause does not free our nation from divine judgment. Just thinking…. would it appropriate to substitute the name of any nation for “Israel” in the Shema? In our attempt to avoid the abuses of some rulers in Europe during the 18th century, did our nation error in its founding document/law when it prohibited the establishment of religion?

  • Kenton says:

    If, however, we take caesar’s money, do we become slaves to him and not Christ?

  • BroDave says:

    I wish the free exercise of my faith by not paying for war, but national, even global pragmatism requires me to pay for what I oppose. Those who are crazed by this preventive medicine initiative that helps women (and men) everywhere might do well to re-consider their objections to what other people may or may not do.

    By the way, the rank arrogance of assuming Muslim adherents need recognize a Christian leader denies the free exercise of faith you want for yourself.
    Rev. David Roberts

    • jim says:

      By the way, why are contraceptives considered health care in the first place? Is fertility a disease? What malady does sterilization correct? It is the barn-yard approach to regulation procreation, isn’t it? Hardly fit for people made in God’s Image with the ability to exercise free will and abstain during the fertile time of the month.
      Pumping women up with class A carcinogens is bad health care. As for it being merely a Catholic issue, check again. Before 1930, it was a Christian issue. Margaret Sangar fled the U.S. for violating ( predominately Protestant ) U.S. law by promoting contraception. Gen. 38:10 used to be read as condemning artificial birth control. What changed? Not the Bible. Were American Protestants right then and wrong now? Or right now and wrong then? Maybe a lot of folks have made their compromise with the world and its lust.

  • Charlotte says:

    What about laws that the church wants to mandate for non Christians? What if a Muslim employer didn’t approve of my seeing a male doctor and refused coverage? Just wondering.

    • Jeremy says:

      Thank you for another thought-provoking blog entry. I always look forward to your insightful discussions of the ways faith intersects with current affairs. I did want to make one comment regarding the assertion which underpins this particular piece: “It is not a question, fundamentally, of “who pays for the contraceptives” but an actual point of conscience to those who serve in these hospitals.” In my view this is a claim that doesn’t bear scrutiny. Many of the workers at Catholic hospitals are non-Catholic, for one, and, among those that are, polls going back to the 1960’s consistently demonstrate that the beliefs of Catholic laity (and most Catholic theologians) regarding contraceptive use and availability are quite different from those of Catholic leadership. The recent CBS/NYT poll shows that 61% of self-identified Catholics approve of the mandate Obama proposed (with Catholic women voicing even greater support, perhaps because some 98% of sexually-active Catholic women use contraceptives, according to a recent Reuters poll).

      Furthermore, the mandate included language that specifically exempted houses of worship and “other religious nonprofits that primarily employ and serve people of faith.” This would not have impacted the Roman Catholic Church itself at all. Many Catholic-affiliated institutions currently offer health benefit packages that cover contraceptives, and twenty-eight states already mandate such coverage.

      The blog assertion, then, erases the actual beliefs of the workers involved (largely female), silently replacing them with the beliefs of the church leadership (largely male), a leadership with a long and dismal history of minimizing women and their health issues– which begs the question: whose religious conscience are we protecting here? Certainly not that of the actual people involved (Catholic or not), who do not share the religious convictions of a Catholic leadership that proposes to coerce them into compliance.

      That said, I continue to look forward to the many insightful posts I am sure to find in this blog. Thank you for challenging us and for writing about things that matter.