Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Rick's posts about contraception coverage and the healthcare law point to the calls by, among others, Steve Schneck and Michael Sean Winters for a much broader exemption for "religious employers" than the exceedingly narrow one that the Obama HHS Department is proposing. The proposed exemption, drawn from state laws mandating employer insurance coverage of contraception, only treats an organization as a "religious employer" eligible for accommodation if the organization, among other things, "has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose" and "primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets" (each prong must be satisfied--including two additional ones). As Rick and others have pointed out (and I argued here), this reflects an indefensibly narrow vision of religion as an insular activity of preaching to members. It leaves unprotected virtually all social services, certainly those that do not involve explicit preaching or attempts to convert. (Ironic, since often opponents of religious social services complain that those entities mix in proselytization with the help they provide.)
I'm particularly interested in the attitude of religious liberals or progressives (Christian/Jew, Catholic/Protestant, etc.) toward such a minimalist approach to religious conscience. As a political matter, they may well be the crucial group for preserving the religious liberty of traditionalist groups when it's under assault. (I realize that the Catholic Church itself often confounds neat categories of "traditionalist" and "progressive," but many Catholics, as well as other religious believers, end up sorting into these outlooks.) Traditionalists will often have insufficient votes themselves, and they likely will get little sympathy from secular liberals who oppose both their moral position and the religious faith from which it ultimately stems. But religious liberals, although they mostly disagree with traditionalists on contraception or (say) same-sex marriage, may at least--should at least--sympathize with the sense of devotion and call that leads traditionalists to their positions.
And religious liberals should be deeply disturbed by the definition of "religious employer" that has been peddled in the contraception-funding context. The definition conflicts with a common, even central, tenet of progressive Christianity: that the message of Jesus is not (or not only) about otherworldly salvation, but is about serving the needy with the love of Christ, often without explicitly preaching, proselytizing, or (in the words of the narrow exemption) "inculat[ing] religious values." Similarly, liberal Christians frequently affirm the provision of service ecumenically to all persons, again without seeking to get them to "confess Christ" or join the church--in the exemption's words, "share its tenets"--in order to be recipients of Christian love. If a prominent Christian fundamentalist said that a liberal social service was not Christian or religious because it didn't explicitly preach or try to convert people, religious liberals would fire back. They should fire back about this exemption language too. Even though the narrow exemption may coincide with the beliefs of many religious progressives on contraception, it rests on premises that utterly undermine religious mission as they understand it.
UPDATE: I should note that a variety of scholars from varying positions on the "progressive/traditional" spectrum have written in criticism of the narrowness of the exemption, including Susan Stabile, Rick, etc. I was referring mostly to mainline/liberal religious denominations and activist groups who should criticize it as well.