The HHS Mandate and the Cultural Divide

The religious freedom rallies all around the country this past week have reminded us all, once again, how our country is divided between “cultural conservatives” and “cultural liberals.”  For excellent reviews of those rallies and their news coverage, see Mollie Ziegler-Hemingway here: Here’s your religious freedom rally round-up   and here: What a religious freedom rally looks like

Since terms can get in the way of fruitful discussion, I had best define them up-front.  “Cultural conservatives” are people who have distinct views on the issues of abortiongun politicsseparation of church and stateprivacy,recreational drug use, homosexuality, and censorship.  They base their views of these particular issues upon general loyalties to their faith community (i.e., congregation, church, temple, mosque, or synagogue), the traditional family, cultural traditions, and over two thousand years of morals, norms, and values common to the societies of Western civilization.

“Cultural liberals” have opposite views on all or most of these particular issues, basing their views upon a general loyalty to their supreme moral principle, which is that individuals should be free from cultural norms and expectations of faith communities.  “Social liberals” believe that liberalism should include social justice, and it differs from classical liberalism in believing that the proper role of the state includes addressing economic and social issues, such as unemployment, health care, education, and the expansion of civil rights.  “Social liberals” are usually opposed by “fiscal conservatives,” who oppose the expansion of government because of the tax consequences.  The term “social conservative” is usually used as a synonym for “cultural conservative” (on these definitions, see Wikipedia at:Culture Wars ; Cultural LiberalismCultural Conservatism ; Social Liberalism ;Social Conservatism).

I have addressed some of the issues pertaining to the US Department of Health and Human Services (hereafter HHS) mandate in previous posts (see The Least of These My Brothers ; The HHS Regulations on Contraceptives and Abortifacients: We’ve Been Here Before! ;The Conflict over the HHS Regulations — It Is Theological).

How is the HHS mandate an expression of the cultural divide?  “Cultural conservatives” oppose the HHS mandate, because it promotes and pays for abortion and because it violates the separation between church and state, most specifically the First Amendment’s clause regarding the “free exercise of religion.” “Cultural liberals” support the HHS mandate, because they believe that the employees of faith communities should be liberated from cultural norms and the expectations of faith communities.  “Social liberals” support the HHS mandate, because they believe that contraception and abortion are part of “health care” and because they want to expand the rights of women in these areas.  “Fiscal conservatives” oppose the HHS mandate because they oppose all of the “Affordable Care Act” due to its tax burden.

The position of the “cultural liberal” is the most exposed to criticism and certainly deserves it.  What business does the “cultural liberal” have in trying to “liberate” employees of faith communities?  Employees of faith communities serve in the private sector and serve voluntarily, not under duress.  If those employees don’t like a particular policy of the employing faith community, there are plenty of other faith communities that will welcome their talents and energy.  Starting with the example of Roger Williams in 1635, this is the perennial pattern of religion in America.  If you don’t like the doctrine or policy of a church, leave it and start your own church next door! (Matthew 10:14; Acts 18:5-8).

“Cultural liberals” in the HHS administration have tried to fool the public by making a distinction between certain types of “ministers of religion” who are exempt from the HHS mandate and other employees of faith communities who are not exempt, such as university professors, university staff, hospital staff, and employees of charitable organizations.   But the people have not been fooled by Washington bureaucrats!  Members of faith communities know that agencies that they support, such as universities, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and social service centers, are part of their faith community, or they wouldn’t support them.  Again, the point is, if you are an employee of a faith community and you disagree with its policy, you are always free to leave and use your talents elsewhere.  To demand that a faith community comply with all of the conflicting opinions of its employees is sheer insanity!  To require by law that a faith community comply with the dissenting values of some of its employees is to impose the supreme moral principle of the “cultural liberal” upon that faith community.

I believe that the HHS mandate, which has the public and vocal support of “cultural liberals” (e.g., see ReligiousInstitute.org: Major Mainstream Religious Leaders Support White House on Contraceptive Coverage In Health Care Reform), demonstrates that “cultural liberals” not only oppose the “faith” aspect of faith communities, they also are antagonistic to the “community” aspect of faith communities.  If shared values are replaced by individual values, then there is no “community” in the traditional sense. “Community” depends on shared values, not just shared goods.  There is even evidence that “cultural liberals” take perverse pleasure in breaking-up, or chiseling-away-at, the membership of American faith communities (e.g., see GetReligion.org: Pod people: Time for liberal Catholics to quit?).

Unlike the “cultural liberal,” the position of the “social liberal” is not antithetical to Lutheran theology, at least in principle.  Lutherans are not opposed to government policies that address and improve the welfare of the people.  In the American Edition of Luther’s Works, volumes 44-47, there are thirty treatises of Luther in which he addressed various social issues that were the responsibility of government.  These issues included marriage, monasticism, rebellion, protest movements, support of the poor, regulation of the economy, support of the churches, education, class conflict, the military and war, and ethnic strife.  Lutheran theologians and pastors know this, although they rarely preach about it.  Social welfare is part of the Lutheran tradition, starting with Luther, so we cannot glibly ignore it.

My response to the “social liberal” who supports the HHS mandate is in three parts.  First, with respect to abortion and abortifacients, from a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic perspective these behaviors are clearly sinful and contrary to the commandment “You shall not kill.”  These Mosaic faith traditions view the accidental killing of a child-in-utero as a crime, but not as a capital offense (Exodus 21:13 & 22).  Any Christian who supports abortion-on-demand in principle reveals their true loyalties and that is not to the Word of God!  Some Christian women in American society may obtain an abortion out of fear or social pressure; and they can be forgiven by God, if repentant, because they sin out of weakness.  On the other hand, a Christian who provides abortifacients to a woman with an unwanted pregnancy is comparable to the person who gave a loaded gun to a man who was angry with his neighbor.  The instrument provided is an accessory to a crime.  The only difference between the two is that abortion-on-demand is a crime only in God’s heavenly court, not in American courts.

Second, with respect to sterilization and contraception, from a Lutheran standpoint these behaviors are not sinful in and of themselves.  But I am not convinced that handing out free contraceptives to single people is for their own good.  Shouldn’t the government be encouraging the people to make rational choices, instead of impulsive and irrational choices?  I also recognize that the law cannot prevent people from doing things that are only harmful to themselves.  Providing goods or services that reduce the damage from harmful choices is in some cases prudential.  In other cases, it is not prudential.  For example, did filters on cigarettes lead people to a false security with respect to the dangerous effects of tar, nicotine, and other poisonous substances in tobacco?

Has the HHS administration really done its homework, i.e., explicated all possible results that might result from making contraception, sterilization, and abortion widely and freely available to everyone, both married and single, and has the HHS administration produced long-term synchronic peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate the outcomes of such policies?  Or are we just experimenting with our children’s future for no good reason?

Third, and finally, American Lutherans have a long tradition of not wanting to impose their particular religious values, norms, and morals on their non-Lutheran neighbors.  This comes from our history of being in a minority political position and being immigrant late-comers.  It also comes from the German Lutheran experience of religious pluralism, being ruled by Catholic emperors in the 16th to 18th centuries and Calvinist kings in the 19th century.  It also comes from Luther’s view that the church is not a law-making authority, but a Gospel-proclaiming authority (on this point, see John Witte, Jr., Law and Protestantism:  The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation [Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2002]).

American Lutherans seek to reason together with their non-Lutheran neighbors, not on the basis of religious laws, but on the basis of our common laws, natural law, and common sense.  This is how communities, both local and national, are established, built up, and protected against harm.  To paraphrase a former First Lady, it takes a community to raise a child–and to do many other important things to aid and protect those in need around us.  Faith communities do this work well and should not be hamstrung by the overweening and intrusive individualism of “cultural liberals.”

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