I know that there are thoughtful conservative commentators in the world, but I do have to wonder why, when it comes to issues of religion and church-state separation, so many of them go off the deep end.
Consider Michael Gerson. The former speechwriter for President George W. Bush is now a syndicated columnist, and, while I don’t agree with much of what he says, he sometimes writes columns that make me think.
Yesterday was not one of those columns. Gerson chose to comment on President Barack Obama’s decision to require almost all employers, including some religiously affiliated organizations, to provide birth control coverage in their health care plans. Rather than provide thought-provoking commentary, Gerson came off sounding like a hysterical Free Republic poster but with better spelling.
Obama’s decision, he asserts, was an “ambush.” Gerson adds, “Both radicalism and maliciousness are at work in Obama’s decision – an edict delivered with a sneer.”
So, ensuring Americans access to birth control is malicious and radical? If so, then a lot of Americans are malicious and radical because a lot of Americans use birth control. (In one poll, 86 percent of Americans said they think the effect of “the pill” has been good for society.)
The administration’s rule was not handed down with a “sneer.” In fact, the administration deliberated over this for a long time. Obama even met with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at the White House prior to the decision.
Gerson conveniently omitted some key facts from his column. For starters, this new rule does not apply to houses of worship. It does apply to institutions like church-related colleges, hospitals and social services agencies. These entities serve the general population, hire large numbers of non-Catholics and receive substantial amounts of taxpayer support. They will be required to adopt health plans that provide birth control to those employees who want it.
To most people, this is not a huge deal. It’s not 1950 anymore. The Catholic hierarchy long ago lost this battle. Polls show that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use artificial forms of contraception. The church leadership’s attempt to badger its own members into compliance has failed. Why should federal policy reflect a theological rule that just about every U.S. Catholic is ignoring?
Gerson concludes his column with an ominous warning, saying Obama’s decision “will provoke opposition beyond Catholicism.” He goes on to write, “The administration’s ultimate motivation is uncertain. Has it adopted a radical secularism out of conviction, or is it cynically appealing to radical secularists? In either case, the war on religion is now formally declared.”
This sounds like the mumbo-jumbo I read in Religious Right fundraising letters. Gerson is either being incredibly dense or disingenuous. The administration’s “ultimate motivation” is not uncertain. It’s crystal clear: Americans rely on birth control. The administration wants to ensure that they have access to it.
The Rev. Paul Simmons, president of the Louisville, Ky., chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a Baptist minister, had a worthwhile take on this. Simmons said the administration was correct to require the coverage. He said denying women coverage for contraception coerces them into following teachings they may not believe in because of the complications and expense of seeking coverage on their own.
“It’s nobody’s business but the woman’s,” Simmons told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “She can seek all the counsel in the world she desires” from religious leaders, he said. “But she should not be subject to anybody’s conscience but her own.”
Yes, the Catholic hierarchy will throw a fit. Americans United is already receiving reports of bishops issuing letters denouncing Obama to congregants. But there’s no guarantee that the average person in the pews will listen. Chances are, most of them agree with the president.
Obama had a choice: He could side with the vast majority of Americans who want and expect access to modern medicine, including contraceptives, or he could side with a band of reactionary (and celibate) bishops stuck in the 15th century. He chose the former.
This may have surprised Gerson. To the rest of us, it’s just plain common sense.
P.S. The February issue of Church & State contains a cover story examining the Catholic hierarchy’s efforts to aggressively step up its religious lobbying in Washington. You can read it here.