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A very wise Trappist monk once told me that unless everyone gets to heaven, no one will. It’s this sense of mutual responsibility — fundamental to the Judeo-Christian tradition — that President Obama needs to emphasize now.
It seems far-fetched, from my perspective, to think that God should have any opinion at all about contraceptive technology, let alone about which corporate entity should pay for it. Yet that is the argument the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made last week. God doesn’t like birth control, they said. To force Catholic organizations to pay for birth control goes against God and so against the consciences of right-minded Catholics who believe in God.
The First Amendment protects the bishops’ rights to freely believe such things — to teach them in their parishes and in their schools, to say them out loud without fear of reprisal. That is a good thing. Yet last week, the furor over protecting the religious beliefs of that small minority grew so loud that the president blinked. He entered a negotiation on the bishops’ terms, over their so-called freedoms.
Then, when the bishops refused to accept his accommodation, the president had political egg on his face.
In Washington, religious groups are interest groups. Just like the National Rifle Association or the farm lobby, the bishops want their priorities to take precedence over everyone else’s — and their clerical garb gives their position gravitas. But in truth, the bishops’ claims to moral truth are just that — claims. Their religious vows do not make them, in any objective sense, more moral than anybody else. (And, to bring up a sore subject, the sex abuse scandals of a decade ago might force one to conclude that the moral compasses of a few American bishops are extremely out of whack.)
The “religious freedom” argument, then, is a red herring, an election-year ploy to make the president look un-American. Last election cycle, Obama was tarred by criticism that he was a communist, a Muslim, an atheist, a terrorist sympathizer. This time around, his political foes want to portray him as an enemy of religion, trampling the freedoms of God-fearing Americans. Here, then, are some suggestions for the president as he enters these new culture wars.
●Have some moral backbone. By negotiating with zealots, you lose the high ground. By standing up to the zealots, you show them for what they are: zealots.
●Stress the record. This is the president, remember, who infuriated his base by inviting the anti-gay-marriage evangelical pastor Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration and who stood up in federal court to protect the National Day of Prayer.
Secularists do not see Obama as their guy in the White House. Under his administration, faith-based groups are cooperating extensively with government and business. A program run out of Obama’s faith-based office allows religious groups to act as micro-lenders to entrepeneurs in poor communities; together with AmeriCorps, religious groups are helping to turn around failing public schools in six cities; and the Foreign Service now requires recruits to take comprehensive training on religious issues.
Obama’s engagement with faith-based groups is so far-reaching, in fact, that Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was moved to write an op-ed in the Huffington Post this month. He called Obama’s faith-based initiative “pretty much identical to the deeply problematic one created by President George W. Bush.” That doesn’t look like a war on religion to me.
●Tell a different religion story. It’s time to remind people that in a democracy citizens have to participate in activities they don’t like and sometimes pay for things they don’t believe in.
Taxpayer dollars have funded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of more than 6,000 U.S. service members and countless more civilians — and yet the conversation on the moral dimensions of these conflicts barely exists in the public sphere. My conscience tells me the death penalty is wrong, yet 58 people sit on federal death row, and some fraction of my federal tax dollars will inevitably contribute to their execution.
Obama made the Golden Rule the moral foundation of his 2008 campaign, and he has started to speak this way again. In his budget speech in Northern Virginia this week, he linked a sense of collective destiny to patriotism. “Here in America, the story has never been about what we can do just by ourselves; it’s about what we can do together.”
It is a difficult moment to convince Americans that they should care about their neighbors as much as themselves, but if anyone can make the case, this president has the rhetorical gifts to do so. He needs to use them.