Last week Ann Marie Buerkle accused the Obama administration of waging a war on religion. This took place after the administration decided that their health care regulations would require that most employers provide their workers with contraceptive care as part of their health care benefits package.
This is a tough call. The choice is this: Which is the sillier spectacle, a congresswoman calling the promulgation of this regulation a “war” or the breathtaking assertion of an all-male, celibate religious directorate that it remains in possession of divinely inspired knowledge regarding the sexual and reproductive lives of each and every woman on the planet?
If Buerkle genuinely believes that Obama is waging a war on religion, she is accusing him of violating his oath of office. In a phone interview last weekend, she reaffirmed her belief that the birth control mandate is, in fact, a war on all religion. Wasn’t war, in which one side seeks to eliminate the other, an extreme comparison? Not in our Congresswoman’s mind. She referenced the 1960s War on Poverty that sought to eradicate poverty, which is a strong metaphor. I asked if she truly believed that Obama was engaging in a war to eradicate religion, and Buerkle demurred. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Then she has some work to do. The First Amendment, which Obama has sworn to uphold and protect, guarantees freedom of religion. If Obama has begun a war on religion, impeachment hearings should be initiated to get to the bottom of this. If Buerkle has knowledge of a secret war going on, we should all be grateful to her for exposing it. Hearings could explore important questions such as, “Who are the casualties in this war?” and “Where is the money coming from to fight it?” The world deserves to see the violated sanctuaries, the persecuted followers, the refugees in full flight seeking freedom to worship.
Now I understand that this is a hot button issue for many people. More than likely this is a move that will hurt Obama politically. With enemies like Buerkle determined to defeat him, we can expect them to make hay of this step. But a war on religion? Have these people never gone to war? Have they never seen a war?
Buerkle, fresh from confronting Attorney General Eric Holder at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, appears to have decided to make a living throwing gasoline on the flames of cultural social debates that already divide the nation. Why let cooler heads prevail when there are political points to be scored?
And the Catholic church, which could take this moment to remind us of its dedication to a society in which we all care for one another, instead allows a right-wing agenda to narrowly define what it believes. To listen to some bishops, you would think that Jesus Christ came to earth to prevent the distribution of condoms and IUDs. In fact, the Catholic doctrine about artificial birth control is a relatively modern construct. It is the Kim Kardashian of the Catholic community, always drawing much more attention than it merits.
For most Catholics of this era, the matter is settled, and not on the side of the bishops. Ninety-eight percent of American Catholic women of reproductive age use what their church would consider artificial means of birth control. They ignore the prattling from the altar for many reasons, including this simple truth: The most effective means of preventing abortion is making contraception available.
Instead of playing the victim or conjuring images of war, both Buerkle and the bishops could show genuine leadership by addressing the legal issue that remains unresolved: the conscience clause. How can public policy be implemented which carries out the wishes of the majority while at the same time honoring the convictions of individuals and communities whose conscience begs them not to participate in certain practices? Obama’s compromise last Friday demonstrates that there are ways that the health care law can go forward without Catholic hospitals and universities being required to fund contraception.
This could be a moment to expand the conscience clause. The argument that Catholics and their institutions should not be forced to pay for practices they oppose has a solid foundation. The Catholic church and many other religious bodies have spoken eloquently about the misplaced priorities of a society that spends trillions preparing for war while millions live in poverty, and yet every payday Catholics are forced to tithe to the gods of Armageddon without a peep being heard about conscience being trampled.
If there is a war to be had, let us make it a war on war.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in The New Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.