Overreach begets overreach in birth-control debate

There must be some kind of Newtonian law for politics, along the lines of, “For every overreach there is an equal and opposite overreach.” Case in point.

President Obama had been warned: Don’t force religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover contraceptives, and it’s no secret that more than a few religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, teach that using artificial birth control is morally wrong.

But on Jan. 20, that’s exactly what Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced would happen. The Administration’s idea of an olive branch at that point was to give religious-based organizations and institutions, such as Catholic hospitals, universities and charities, a year to figure out how to comply.

The reaction was literally predictable. The American Catholic bishops were ready with their message: This is nothing less than a trespass on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

For the first three weeks, that message reverberated enough to stir up a broad coalition. Not only the usual suspects who oppose the very ground the president walks on, but even left-leaning Catholic leaders, who support the right to birth control, saw this as a classic church-state battle, a war on religion.

Then on Feb. 10, the president announced an “accommodation”: religious institutions would not be required to offer contraception coverage, pay for it, or even inform their employees about it. Instead, women would deal directly with health insurers. The president painted this new arrangement as an effort to balance the concerns of conscience with the rights of Americans to receive the health-care options they wanted.

The Administration avoided words like “compromise” and “climb down,” but that’s what it was. It had overreached and got its hand smacked.

A good number of Catholics and other religious leaders applauded the move at first, but not all and not for long. The bishops and other critics pressed the president, saying the accommodation wasn’t accommodating enough, that it was only window dressing. The war-on-religion rhetoric got louder and shriller.

And that’s when that political law of physics kicked in, because last week—maybe during the House hearings on religious liberty—the fulcrum of the debate shifted from being about freedom of religion to being about church leaders who want to force their morality on the nation. The big media story changed.

Suddenly, the church wasn’t the victim of government imposition but the ones doing the imposing, threatening the reproductive rights of American women. The church leaders had been winning the public debate, but because they did not strategically settle for the win, they handed critics had the opening they needed.

Along the way, critics took shots at the bishops’ for their apparent inconsistencies in what social issues they choose to address or not address, and, inevitably, about the sex-abuse scandals. Could the word “hypocrite” be far behind?

Suddenly, they were the ones who looked overreaching.

The president was amazingly tone-deaf when he issued the initial contraceptive rule. He tried to fix it, but he’ll continue to pay for his mistake whenever an opponent wants to raise the specter of a secularized chief executive, a president who doesn’t share the world view of most Americans, who doesn’t follow “a real theology.” (Hello, Rick Santorum.)

But the president’s critics, particularly the Catholic bishops, overreached when they kept pushing after he compromised because they made themselves easy targets for opponents to raise the specter of power-hungry theocrats who don’t care about women’s health.

Of course, the bishops aren’t trying to get re-elected in November.

The Top 10: Religion news in 2009

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June, when he declared his desire to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” was the biggest religion story of the year, according to a survey of the Religion Newswriters Association.

In his wide-ranging address, Obama said that the U.S. and Islam “overlap and share common principles … of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” focusing those themes on seven specific issues. The president quoted the Qur’an, the Bible and the Talmud as he held out the prospect of a relationship “based on mutual interest and mutual respect (and) based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”

The speech was well received by local Muslims, according to Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.

“On the whole, it was a very positive speech,” Aziz recalled this week. “The general perception of the U.S. (by most Muslim countries) was negative, and I think the president was trying to improve that. I think it’s a good step.”

It was significant that the president delivered the speech at a highly regarded university in a historic Muslim capital, he said.

“Using the greeting of ‘Assalamu Alaykum’ (Peace be unto you) was a nice touch,” Aziz added. ”I liked the way he said would like to deal with issues and conflicts in the world today.”

But how Obama’s words will ultimately translate into policy is not yet clear, and so members of the Muslim community also feel wary, particularly about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which the president addressed at length.

“(Obama’s) bias towards Israel was very evident,” according to Aziz. “On the one hand he said, ‘Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.’ And then he went onto speak about the Israelis and the elevated status they had with the U.S.”

So Aziz doubts that the U.S. can act as an honest broker in the Middle East, “and that is what is needed.” On the other hand, American Muslims understand “that if he does not toe the Israeli line, he may stand to lose the next election.”

Here is the complete list of the year’s Top 10 Religion Stories, as selected by active members of Religion Newswriters Association:

1. President Obama pledges a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations and reaches out to the world’s Muslims during a major speech at Cairo University.

2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 political topic for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.

3. Because Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, was considered a devout Muslim, the role of that faith in terrorism again comes under review.

4. Dr. Carl Tiller of Wichita, Kan., regarded as the country’s leading abortion provider, is gunned down in his Lutheran church.

5. Mormons in California come under attack from some supporters of gay rights because of their lobbying efforts in the November 2008 election on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Later in the year, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire approve gay marriage, but it is overturned by voters in Maine.

6. Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame after fierce debates at the Roman Catholic university over Obama’s views on abortion.

7. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votes to ordain gay and lesbian clergy living in a committed monogamous relationship, prompting a number of conservative churches to move toward forming a new denomination.

8. The recession forces cutbacks at a variety of faith-related organizations.

9. The Episcopal Church Triennial Convention votes to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury not to do so. In December the Los Angeles diocese chooses a lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as assistant bishop.

10. Obama’s presidential inauguration includes a controversial invocation by Rick Warren and a controversial benediction by Joseph Lowery, as well as a pre-ceremony prayer by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Dec 2009.

Are we fighting a just war? I’m just asking.

President Obama’s speech on Tuesday, which laid out his plans for Afghanistan, Pakistan and al Qaeda, left me feeling conflicted, uncertain, even a little queasy. Apparently I’m not alone.

There’s only marginal agreement among Americans about the military buildup, with 51 percent supporting Obama’s plan, according to a USA Today-Gallup survey taken the day after his speech. But almost all of us are fretful. By an almost three-to-one margin (73 percent to 26 percent), Americans said they are worried that the costs of the war will make it more difficult to deal with problems close to home. That is besides the normal anxiety that comes with any major conflict.

In making his case, Obama declared that “in the midst of these storms … our cause is just,” echoing words from last year’s campaign, when he said that destroying al Qaeda is “a cause that could not be more just.” (Anyone who is surprised that Obama is focusing on Afghanistan hasn’t been paying attention.)

“Just” is a significant word when talking about war, hearkening to a way of thinking that dates back to the Romans and found its most enduring expression through Christianity. When we talk about a “just war,” we’re talking ethics and theology.

There’s irony here, since Jesus told his followers to pray for their enemies and “turn the other cheek” when insulted. For the first three centuries after he walked the earth, most Christian teachers steered followers away from military service.

But this pacifist position softened as the Christian faith gained respectability in the Roman Empire, especially after it was legalized in the early 300s and made the official state religion in 380.

The question was how Jesus’ instructions to his followers applied in a wider society. Christ taught peace, the reasoning goes, but people and nations – sinners all – must still deal with the world as it is. Part of that challenge is to determine what conditions must be met for a war to be justifiable, even while recognizing that war is a result of sin.

Augustine, a North African bishop and considered one of the church’s greatest teachers, framed a “just war” doctrine through his writings in the fourth and fifth centuries, as the collapsing Roman Empire was coming under siege from northern European “barbarians.” His teaching has formed the basis for most Christian thinking about war ever since.

In its current Catechism, the Roman Catholic Church summarizes just-war doctrine, saying that, “at one and the same time,

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
President Barack Obama greets cadets after speaking about the war in Afghanistan at West Point on Dec. 1.

Those who govern, “those who have responsibility for the common good,” are burdened with evaluating “these conditions for moral legitimacy,” the catechism says. In other words, war must be declared by legitimate authorities.

This being theology, of course, the answers aren’t as simple as this list suggests. Libraries are full of books that tease out various interpretations.

So does the war against al Qaeda via Afghanistan qualify as a just war? I’m no theologian and even less of a military expert, but a few answers seem clear.

It’s obvious that al Qaeda inflicted “lasting, grave and certain” damage on the U.S. and other places. (But how lasting?) Also, while success is never guaranteed – Vietnam is a harsh reminder – there seems to be “serious prospects” of success. The government has indeed approved the use of force. (An interesting footnote: Americans have not engaged in an officially declared war since 1945.)

When we beyond these few certainties, however, the answers grow murky.

For now, maybe it’s enough to make sure we ask ourselves questions like these – ethical and theological questions – if only to remind ourselves of what is at stake, even more than economics, politics or national security. As we should know by now and as Augustine and other theologians knew a long time ago, we don’t risk only the lives of soldiers when we go to war. We risk our souls.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 5 Dec 2009.

Critical condition: The health-care debate isn’t too healthy right now

Anyone paying attention to the news this week knows that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania got shouted down in a town-hall meeting about health care, as did some citizens who just wanted to ask a few questions.

When President Barack Obama spoke in New Hampshire, protesters outside compared him to Adolf Hitler, repeating the stupidity of left-wingers who compared George W. Bush to Hitler a few years ago. (Note to activists: The fastest way to get reasonable people to stop listening to you is to compare someone to Hitler.)

All this followed a few weeks when national leaders, including former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, repeated scary lies about what was being proposed in the health-care plans.

Several weeks earlier, Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, was a little too frank for his own good when he approached health care more as a political weapon than a problem for his constituents. “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo,” he said. “It will break him.”

Watching these videos and listening to these reports, I thought, “This isn’t good for the nation’s soul.”

I usually don’t think of the nation literally having a “soul.” I take it as a metaphor, a poetic way of talking about our society’s values. But however we think about it, something corrosive and discouraging and damaging is going on.

It’s not the issue itself. Health care and insurance is perhaps the most important domestic question of our generation and we need to have a good, open debate about it.

But that’s the problem: Right now, the debate, or at least the part that is getting the most attention, is neither good nor open. Not when political leaders are blatantly more interested in making partisan gains than in addressing national problems. Not when a fellow citizen can’t ask an honest question in a public meeting without getting screamed at. Not when talk-show hosts like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh joke about killing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Not when people carry concealed weapons to town-hall meetings, as happened in Arizona last week.

Angry reactions are predictable. Log in to a left-wing blog or the comments section of any big news organization, and you’ll find plenty of broad-brushed insults labeling conservatives as kooks, idiots and threats to the nation.

Even some conservatives are getting concerned.

“The guns are coming out. The risks are real,” wrote David Frum this week in his New Majority blog. “It’s not enough for conservatives to repudiate violence, as some are belatedly beginning to do. We have to tone down the militant and accusatory rhetoric. If Barack Obama really were a fascist, really were a Nazi, really did plan death panels to kill the old and infirm, really did contemplate overthrowing the American constitutional republic—if he were those things, somebody should shoot him.

“But he is not. He is an ambitious, liberal president who is spending too much money and emitting too much debt. His health-care ideas are too over-reaching and his climate plans are too interventionist. The president can be met and bested on the field of reason—but only by people who are themselves reasonable.”

Some people in the self-styled “mob” who disrupt town-hall meetings claim the American Revolution as their inspiration. They should remember that the revolution was framed by appeals to reason and defended with lengthy argument, and that a declaration of independence – which didn’t pass with a unanimous vote – emerged from the Continental Congress, where formal rules of order allowed representatives to debate passionately, speak honestly and produce something of value.

The health-care issue calls for our best efforts, our best thinking and our best examples of citizenship. Lives are literally at stake.

Today we’re not at our best. The strident and sometimes threatening town-hall rants, the lies and the distortions – all tactics closer to “fascism” than anything Obama has ever suggested – are distracting us from actual issues and getting in the way of potential solutions.

Since I’m not even sure we can talk about the nation having a soul, it might be a stretch to think that some simple scriptural words might help carry on an emotional debate: Do to others what you would have them do to you.

Maybe the Golden Rule even sounds naïve. But it’s a start.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 15 August 2009.

Christian colleges, commencements, controversy

Notre Dame, the nation’s most prestigious Roman Catholic university, walked a fine line last week when President Barack Obama, who favors abortion rights, delivered the commencement address. Critics said the school crossed a line just by inviting him. Even more complained about granting him an honorary degree.

At least two dozen graduating seniors boycotted the ceremony. At least three dozen protesters were arrested on the campus.

Starting with Dwight Eisenhower, Notre Dame has invited most presidents to speak at commencement. (One notable exception: Bill Clinton.) But this year, the invitation to Obama upset the delicate balance between Notre Dame’s Roman Catholic teaching, which strongly opposes abortion, and its academic freedom.

A 2004 statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is straightforward: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

On the other hand, as a leading university Notre Dame is obligated to academic freedom.

While not as high profile, the dozens of church-related colleges and universities in this region struggle with the same tensions, often played out at their big, public events.

Formal criteria for choosing commencement speakers are few and far between. Generally, colleges select people of accomplishment, who are likely to present a worthwhile message, and who have contributed significantly to society or to the institution. Most church-related colleges also want their speakers to be people of faith.

 “I try to find a speaker whom I think will be challenging,” said Don Jeanes, president of Milligan College, affiliated with Christian churches and churches of Christ (and where I teach). “Secondly, we want it to be a person of strong Christian commitment … someone who is consistent with the majority of where our constituency would be in theological persuasion.”

King College in Bristol, Tenn., affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, considers its commencement address as part of the academic program, according to Tracy Parkinson, assistant dean of the faculty.

“Commencement is special because of the nature of the school,” Parkinson said. “At the same time, if you’re going to bring folks from a wide variety of perspectives, as we do during the year, there will be people on campus who agree and some don’t. It’s an important part of what we consider the academic integrity of what we do.”

Parkinson said that considering the college’s normal criteria for commencement speakers – “a professing Christian, who’s accomplished in his or her field” – then Obama would be “a reasonable candidate” as a speaker, as would people “on the other side of any number of political or social issues.”

Public figures by definition are engaged in public issues, which can make it difficult to avoid controversy, according to Dirk Moore, director of public relations at Emory and Henry College, a United Methodist school in Emory, Va.

“Often what you want to bring to a commencement address is someone who’s been engaged in public service and so has had to take certain positions,” he said. “It can be hard not to be lightning rods.”

But part of the learning process is hearing from people who have different points of views, Moore said, and that process doesn’t end at commencement.

“Ultimately what you have here is a learning opportunity,” Moore said. “It would be unwise for any educational institution to keep them out simply because we may disagree with them on particular issues. We’re here to serve and educate students, open their perspectives on the world.”

Moore thinks the Notre Dame administrators were correct to invite Obama – not in spite of the controversy but because of it.

“Controversy is never pleasant for colleges and universities, but that’s kind of expected, to have voices expressing opinions,” he said. “What are you going to do, ridicule them for having firm beliefs?”

That’s one reason Moore was impressed with the Notre Dame students who protested Obama’s presence.

“A university is doing its job,” he said, “when it’s having students who come out with convictions that are important in their lives.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 23 May 2009.

The politics of conscience and health care

I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to walk into a pharmacy with a prescription for, say, a contraceptive and be refused because the pharmacist believes contraception is morally wrong. In most areas I would be just inconvenienced because I could speak to another pharmacist or take my business elsewhere. In some places, however, I might be standing in the only drug store in town, and then what?

I’m also trying to imagine what it would be like to be a pharmacist whose faith or church teaching opposes artificial contraception – which would lead me into acting unethically if I filled that prescription. Even referring the customer to another pharmacist could be considered a disguised form of cooperation. And then what?

Last fall the Bush Administration started a process that resulted in a rule that protects health workers, particularly those who receive Medicare or Medicaid funding, if they refuse to provide treatment that goes against their consciences. The new rule took effect on Jan. 20, the day Bush left office.

Six weeks later, the new Obama administration declared its intention to reverse that rule, opening a 30-day public comment period that ended April 9. Now the Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing the comments and, come June or July, is likely to rescind the “conscience rule.”

The debate, in effect, pits the rights of patients against the rights of care providers, especially when it comes to birth control, abortion and end-of-life treatment.

“There are two schools of thought,” according to Walter Fitzgerald, adjunct professor of pharmacy practice who teaches law and ethics at the Gatton College of Pharmacy at East Tennessee State University. “One says that (providers) should not be forced to do something in conflict to their religious or personal moral values. Another says that if you are given a license by the state and in essence have sworn an oath to serve fellow man, then you don’t have the right to object any longer, because of your professional obligation.”

Opponents of the Bush rule say it limits access for care to patients. Supporters of the rule say it safeguards the freedom of conscience for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals that dates back to the Hippocratic Oath and the First Amendment.

Opponents say that laws enacted during the 1970s (soon after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide), which allow providers to refuse treatment as long as they provide information and access by other means, have worked just fine.

Supporters of the conscience rule, such as David Stevens, executive director of the Bristol-based Christian Medical and Dental Association, say those laws are toothless, opening the door to a kind of “ethical cleansing” in the medical field, aimed at practitioners who oppose abortion.

“There’s a lot of discrimination going on,” he said in a phone interview last week. A recent survey found that almost one-fourth of the CMDA’s 15,000 members said they had been “discriminated against” because of their opposition to abortion. “They’ve been fired from jobs or failed to get a promotion or weren’t able to get into an educational program,” he said.

But no lawsuits are pending, according to Stevens, because the laws don’t provide for legal action.

Tennessee, like most states, has a conscience clause, allowing health workers to refuse treatment as long as patients can get treatment elsewhere. So far, Fitzgerald said, the matter of conscience hasn’t been a problem, at least not for pharmacists. That’s not the case in some other states. In Illinois, for instance, pharmacists must dispense.

“There, it’s mandated. You don’t really have a choice,” Fitzgerald explained. “We don’t have anything nearly that strong in Tennessee.”

He isn’t sure yet how rescinding the federal rule would affect Tennessee.

“Giving information or referral is not required by law (in Tennessee), but from an ethical standpoint, that would be expected,” Fitzgerald said. “If a pharmacist refuses to dispense RU-486, someone could make an argument that it’s contrary to state Board of Pharmacy rule, especially if it’s medically necessitated or in case of rape.”

But that leaves a very complex, sometimes messy scene.

“Even if the federal law says that you have to honor freedom of choice, we have to balance that against our (professional) rules,” he said. “We don’t have a clear-cut answer.”

That pretty well sums up the whole debate.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 25 April 2009.