In light of the media frenzy over the Obamacare contraception mandate (which appears to be about to die during the President’s upcoming press conference), I thought I would offer a few off the wall thoughts, not so much about this particular issue but rather the deeper concerns it should raise.
Many people have framed the Obamacare contraception mandate as “Exhibit A” in proving that the Obama administration is waging a no-so-secret “war on religion”. This is a tempest that is growing in intensity and more and more prominent, mostly politically conservative, religious leaders are jumping on board to make known their outrage. The narrative is that the government, when a Democrat is in charge, is trying to overturn the (risible) notion that America is a nation founded on “Judeo-Christian” morals and to destroy religious freedom. If I were cynical I might suggest that a great deal of the uproar over this issue has more to do with rallying the troops (aka voters) to drive turnout and hopefully remove the current President from office. If I were cynical….
Here is what I think. While I don’t think the current President is a very good President by virtually any measure and he certainly is not nearly as interested in appealing to the American evangelical voting block as his predecessor, I don’t really buy into the notion that he is waging a war against religious freedom. I believe that for one primary reason.
Government loves religion.
I really think that government actually loves religion, regardless of the form or creed, as long as religion plays along with the symbiotic relationship religion in the West has traditionally had with state. That relationship has nothing to do with forced coverage for contraception. Rather, the state gives preferential treatment to religious organizations and their employees and in return religious organizations promote civic morality, help to feed the poor, serve as a provider of marriages and funerals and generally help keep the society running smoothly. Religious people dutifully support the government’s wars and often send our sons of to fight, kill and die in those same wars. What is not to like if you are the government? For centuries the state and religion have had a fairly cordial symbiotic relationship, one that has been modified in America but in spite of our “freedom of religion” and the “separation of church and state”, the state and religion maintain a comfy working relationship. That doesn’t mean that the contraceptive coverage mandate is not bad law and simply unconstitutional because it is but not for 1st Amendment reasons or as a result of the “war on religious freedom”.
The real issue with this mandate is not a matter of religious freedom at all. It is a simple matter of a violation of federalism. The idea of the Federal government requiring private employers to offer a particular kind of health care, namely contraception which is hardly medically necessary (society seemed to chug along just fine before oral contraception and other forms of birth control were widely available), under what can only be described as a perversion of federalism and the interstate commerce clause would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. The Federal government in my lifetime under Republican and Democratic Presidents alike would be unrecognizable to the Founding Fathers: a massive bureaucracy, huge land holdings, an enormous and ridiculously expensive standing military stationed and engaged in interventionist adventures around the world. huge budget deficits, instrusion into every aspect of our lives. It would be unthinkable. That is not my concern, at least not my primary concern.
The lesson for the church is one that I have not really heard from anyone. What we should take away from this whole debacle is that the church should not be in the position of also being an employer. Regardless of the good, real or perceived, that comes from the church sponsoring private businesses, the undeniable truth is that the church being an employer is fraught with issues, not least of which is being unequally yoked. Most churches would rightly avoid being in a partnership with the mormon church or with a mosque but in assuming the role and responsibility of the employer-employee relationship the church inherently becomes tacit partners with the state and thereby being unequally yoked with the same. When you employ people you are inextricably entangled with employment law, with wage and benefit issues, government regulations, etc. When you are an employer, you place yourself in a position that the church simply should not be in, namely a partner with the state. This is probably quite controversial to many people because church sponsored employers are so incredibly common. Most people “go to church” in a setting where the leader or leaders of the church are paid employees. Hospitals, schools, universities, denominational bureaucracies, on and on. The "church as employer" is unquestioned but I believe it is inherently problematic for the church and leads to predictable issues like we are seeing played out in the media right now.
What we are running into with the Obamacare contraception mandate kerfuffle is the necessary (and avoidable) result of entangling the mission of the church and the mission of the state. The church being entangled with the state doesn’t make the state more holy but it does taint the church with worldly concerns. Also predictable is the way that many people are exploiting this for their own benefit, whether for fund raising or to gather votes or other cynical reasons (for example, right on the front page of the American Center for Law and Justice are pleas to stop Obama’s war on religion, including the ubiquitous “Donate” link). I am sure that there are many, many people who are genuinely outraged by the contraception mandate but like anything else, when we allow politics to infiltrate the church, we need to follow the money trail. Who benefits most from this controversy? Who is going to see donations flow in? Answer those questions and you will see the issue with far more clarity.
We need to be very careful to be crystal clear who our allegiance is to and what our mission is. For the entire history of the church there have been people willing to exploit believers for their own benefit and nothing has changed in 2000 years.