The Conflict over the HHS Regulations — It Is Theological

Readers of this blog are, by now, familiar with the ongoing conflict between various churches and political factions over the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (hereafter HHS) regulations which would mandate that “all employers” provide contraceptives and abortifacients to their employees, regardless of moral or conscience objections. “All employers” is qualified by the exemption for “sectarian organizations,” which exemption probably means only “houses of worship,” although that is unclear at the present.

President Matthew Harrison’s forthright confession of the position of the LC-MS before the House Committee has been joined now by statements by all members of the LC-MS Council of Presidents, the faculty of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, and an eloquent testimony before the Heritage Foundation by the LC-MS Director of Life and Health Ministries, Mrs. Maggie Karner. For more information, statements, and videos about the synod’s position, click on this link.

Ever since the HHS regulations became public, I have been wondering who is behind them. Would any rational politician willingly jeopardize the goodwill of a majority of his fellow citizens for the sake of bureaucratic efficiency? I highly doubt it. So, then, who is on the other side of the HHS regulations, using the power of the U.S. government to coerce certain religious groups, which happen to be the largest religious groups by membership in the U.S.?

Today, I found out who is behind the HHS regulations. Even if they are not the ones who originated the regulations, they are publicly supporting those regulations which coerce certain religious groups. Click on this link to see who supports the HHS regulations.

The groups supporting the HHS regulations in this statement may be divided into four groups: 1) church-bodies; 2) institutions of theological education; 3) political action-groups within denominational traditions, which may or may not have official sanction; 4) non-profit organizations with no official religious connection, which support a liberal social agenda with respect to women and their interests.

In the first group, we find: a) the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the main denomination of “reform Judaism”; b) the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, a more liberal group in “conservative Judaism”’ c) the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the main denomination of “conservative Judaism”; d) the Unitarian Universalist Association; and e) the United Church of Christ.

In the second group, we find: a) the Episcopal Divinity School of Cambridge, Massachusetts; b) the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (hereafter UTS).

In the third group, we find various organizations representing Catholics, Jews, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Muslims. I repeat that members of this third group do not have official sanction and may represent only a very small fraction of their respective church-bodies.

The only surprise, to me, was the support of the “United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism” for the HHS regulations. This denomination’s theological school is the Jewish Theological Seminary (hereafter JTS), across the street from UTS. A little research revealed that JTS began graduating female rabbis in 1987 and began admitting openly gay students in 2007. The acceptance of female rabbis at JTS led to the resignation of the world-famous JTS scholar David Weiss Halvini in the 1980s. The “conservative” name in this particular denomination is confusing to those who don’t understand the divisions in American Judaism.

No surprise, to me, was the support of UTS. I am a graduate of that institution (M.Phil., 1990; Ph.D., 1996) and I lived there as a resident doctoral student for four years in the department of church history. For those unfamiliar with UTS, its professors once included Philip Schaff, Charles Briggs, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Wilhelm Pauck, and many other well-known names in American Protestantism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer also spent two sabbaticals there. Since the 1960s, UTS has become prominent as a leader in the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the gay liberation movement. This all fits within its long history of support for the “social gospel” movement.

The social gospel movement was summed up by the Rev. Professor Shailer Matthews of the University of Chicago, many years ago, when he said: “The great command which Jesus lays upon his followers is not to have their wrongs righted; but to right the wrongs of others” (Shailer Matthews, “The Gospel and the Modern Man,” p. 253; quoted in Reinhold Niebuhr, “An Interpretation of Christian Ethics” [n.p.: Seabury Press, 1979], p. 105). Matthews further stated “that to get justice for others by compelling the over-privileged to give it to them may be the quintessence of [Christian] love” (Matthews, p. 255; Niebuhr, p. 106).

When I was a student at UTS, one of the most frequent conversations was how women could obtain justice in American society–“justice” understood in a social gospel way. Based on those conversations at UTS, I think I understand those who support the HHS regulations. The essential doctrine of the social gospel, as stated by Matthews, is now being applied by classifying the male-dominated Catholic hierarchy, and the non-female-ordaining Jewish and Protestant clergy, as the “over-privileged” who must be compelled to give reproductive “justice” to women. Since men are the “over-privileged” who make women pregnant, such “justice” requires that the “over-privileged” men who control these religious institutions give reproductive justice to women, which includes free access to, and free use of, contraceptives and abortifacients. This explains why the religious leaders who signed the “Religious Institute” statement are in favor of the proposed HHS coercion of religious institutions and its violation of the First Amendment.

My purpose here is not to disagree with the social gospel or with its application to the present political conflict. My purpose is to show that a very strong religious motive is behind the demand that all non-exempt religious institutions offer free contraceptives and abortifacients to their employees. All of the Christians who signed on to the “Religious Institute” statement believe they are in compliance with the real religion of Jesus–too bad for the First Amendment!

This is a real theological conflict. The conflict between the creedal gospel and the social gospel is, truth be told, the major theological conflict in the Christian church today. The government should not take sides in this conflict, because that is definitely what the First Amendment calls an “establishment of religion.” Contraceptives and abortifacients can be offered to all people of the U.S. in other ways, if the government feels that it is important for public health. But when the government mandates this from religious institutions and coerces religious institutions, it is taking sides in a religious conflict. It is theological, after all!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.