Friday, August 10, 2012

“War on Religion” Nonsense

“Be Not Afraid,” a TV ad paid for by the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee, was released yesterday (August 9). 
"President Obama used his health care plan to declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith," the narrator says at the beginning of the 30-second ad. Superimposed on the picture is a reference to San Antonio Express-News, 02-01-2012.
The February 1 Express-News article, “Obama insurance decision declares war on religion,” ended with Michael Gerson’s e-mail address. But, inexplicably, the Romney ad does not mention that that piece was written by Gerson and published in the Washington Post on January 30. (Gerson's op-ed article was titled “Obama plays his Catholic allies for fools” and ends by asserting that “the war on religion is now formally declared.”)
In reply to the Romney ad, Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, said the president “believes that, in 2012, women should have access to free contraception as part of their health insurance, and he has done so in a way that respects religious liberty. Churches are completely exempt and religiously affiliated organizations that object to providing the service will never have to pay for contraception” (from USA Today).
Opposition to the provisions of “Obamacare” that require employers to provide insurance including coverage of legal abortion, sterilization, and contraception has been loud and persistent.
However, providing insurance coverage for something doesn’t mean that people have to use that coverage. For example, just because my insurance policy covers appendectomies, that doesn’t mean I have to go out and have an appendectomy. It is the same with abortion, sterilization, and/or contraception.
Providing coverage doesn’t mean that people who don’t want to be sterilized have to have such a procedure. Of course not!
I am a strong supporter of religious liberty and a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why being required to provide full insurance coverage to employees can be considered a violation of religious freedom or a war on religon.
If it is, does that mean that employers can withhold wages from their employees if they know that those employees are using their wages for immoral purposes? If people choose to use insurance in ways that violate the religious conscience of their employer who provides that insurance, isn’t it equally objectionable for people use their wages in ways that violate the consciences of those who paid them?
Suppose Mr. A is the owner of a company and he finds out that one of his fulltime employees, a married man, is regularly spending around 8% of his earnings on keeping a mistress. By doing that with his paycheck the employee is violating Mr. A’s religious conscience. After all, the Bible is pretty clear: “Thou shall not commit adultery.” So, shouldn’t Mr. A have the religious freedom to deduct 8% from the man’s pay each month?
I doubt that many people would agree that Mr. A should have the freedom to deduct his employee’s pay for that reason. So why should employers have the right to withhold insurance coverage because of “religious freedom”? And why should requiring them to provide insurance be called a war on religion?
Such employers say that people can, and should, pay for their own contraceptives, etc. But if employers require people to buy what they, the employers, should provide through insurance coverage, in effect isn’t that the same as withholding wages from them?
Talk about the President’s “war on religion” is, frankly, political nonsense.


  1. Terrific, Leroy. Well said. Thanks.

  2. The following comments (posted with his permission) are by Dr. Michael Willett Newheart, a Thinking Friend I first met in a class I taught at William Jewell College in the 1970s. Michael, who has been a Quaker for many years, is professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Howard University School of Divinity.

    "Yes, Leroy. I agree with you. I rolled my eyes when I saw that ad on TV. I thought, 'Wow! He can't do any better than that?!'

    "It might be noted that Michael Gerson is not only a syndicated columnist but also a former 'top aide' to George W. Bush, starting out as his speechwriter. See

    "I usually appreciate, though rarely agree with, what Gerson has to say. He does seem to have a penchant for hyperbole, though. In this piece, however, he put the hyperbole at the end, where he would not have to defend it. Romney uses that tagline as his headline. Of course, 30 seconds is not long enough to discuss the real issue, especially if you're going to have Lech Walesa endorse Mitt. (Wow! I'm sure that Lech will be able to deliver a lot of Polish American votes for the GOP!)

    "One can certainly debate the merits of the issue that Gerson discusses and to which the ad alludes, as you have done. But to call it a 'war on religion' is quite a stretch. There's nothing like 'war' rhetoric to fire up the troops, is there? War on poverty, drugs, terror, and now religion. Onward Christian soldiers! It's interesting that when Romney wants to talk about religion these days, it's always religion in very general terms, either the conservative religion that he shares with Liberty University-ites or his disgust for Obama's war on religion. He knows that he's got to stir the energies of the Religious Right, but he can't make too much of his Mormonism.

    "I'm always interested in how religion 'plays' in presidential politics, so thanks for shining the spotlight on this ad, which subtracts and divides!"

    1. I especially like Dr. Newheart's reference to hyperbole — not in my day-to-day vocabulary, but very apt. As a pacifist, I deplore the loose use of the word "war" but am comforted that even the other side thinks it still packs rhetorical power. When used casually, I am afraid it desensitizes us to the horror of it, and with the advent of drones makes war too easy and painless.

      I have been trying to defend hyperbole as a valid technique in political speech because I want our side to be able to use it, too. Civil discourse would be our ideal, of course, but how do we get there from here? If one side unilaterally disarms and is scrupulous about not using hyperbole, haven't we conceded defeat and confirmed that we don't really believe our values are worth fighting for? Verbal combat should be acceptable to pacifists, don't you think? Let's look to our role models: didn't Jesus have a sharp tongue when appropriate? And couldn't Gandhi turn a phrase? What about MLK, Jr.?

      Thanks, Leroy, for this spirited blog, and may the pundits on our side measure up to theirs!

  3. I presume that those who enthusiastically agree with the "war on religion" rhetoric are the same who vociferously insist that there is no "war on women" within their own ranks. I guess one person's "war" is another person's "hyperbole."

    1. The use of "war" in both cases, and concerning other matters also, is, certainly, hyperbole, and it is the kind of rhetoric that I think ought to be rejected.

  4. Leroy, you ask why employers should have the right to withold coverage because of religious freedom. It's the same reason MO Amendment 2 passed so overwhelmingly Tuesday.

    So in addition to adding religious freedoms already guaranteed in the state constitution, parents can now keep their children our of classroom lectures citing religious freedom.

    Students are now free to miss lectures on evolution, biology, geology, and a host of other topics because it may go against their (or their parents') religious beliefs.

    It's a pity that people want to be sheltered from various opinions they disagree with by claiming religious beliefs. But this has been an age-old dilemma for those who believe the absence of knowledge makes them more pious.

    1. David, thanks for mentioning this week's MO amendment. It was just the opposition of a war on religion; it was a part of the war by conservative, narrow-minded religion on education and knowledge.

  5. Even since Socrates got Euthyphro all tangled up in his own definition of justice, people have had a hard time discussing deep issues. We do not understand everything about our own positions, let alone positions of others. Much of the time we function in bubbles where others think enough like us that we can avoid getting too tangled up. Modern American politics is not such a bubble. Whether we are doomed to slug it out with slogans like "War on Women" and "War on Religion" or whether we can seriously discuss deep issues is an open question.

    There is a shallow equivalence between these two wars, as Democrats accuse Republicans of wanting to impose their religious values on others in areas like abortion and birth control, while Republican complain that Democrats want to impose their secular values on others in areas like abortion and birth control. So far the debate is a wash, and for much of the public, that appears to be the limit of the issue.

    To reach a deeper level, we need to debate what kind of values a state should encourage, and how those should be inculcated. Republicans do not like scientific, utilitarian values, while Democrats do not like what appear to be blasphemy laws. So we talk clear past each other on issues like abortion and birth control. Both sides get so tired of pointless debates that in exhaustion we often abandon rational debate in favor of sloganeering. So we have our current election cycle where emotional blunt force trauma has largely displaced rational discussion.

    A related problem is that the issues are just so complex that it is hard to even find a basis to start a discussion. Both sides claim they are rationally discussing economics, fracking, global warming, and so forth, yet all of the debates involve complex technicalities far beyond the scope of most people's education. So we are left counting experts, which is not too far removed from medieval trial by combat. Look how long it took to settle a fairly obvious situation with the question of whether tobacco causes cancer. It turned out that tobacco causes not only cancer, but a whole host of other medical problems, yet the tobacco companies are still busy marketing their products as best they can.

    See continuation in Part 2.

  6. Part 2

    It is useful to remember that democracy is just a substitute for civil war. Sometimes the civil war heritage comes very close to the surface. Power is manifested above all. Sometimes in our history there has been enough common ground between the parties to allow voters to emphasize issues like character and competence above policy and practice. Now is not such a time. Two flawed teams are fighting it out in support of radically different visions of America. Similar struggles are going on around the globe. As Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, ". . . you go to war with the army you have. . ."

    I happen to be a liberal Democrat. That simple fact tells you a great deal about my opinions on a long list of issues. Someone who is a conservative Republican is also telling you a great deal, namely that they disagree with me on almost everything on consequence. We both believe two plus two equals four, but it goes downhill rapidly from there. Even the arithmetic does not scale up when it comes to issues like the budget. For example, the estimates of the 10-year effect of the proposed Romney budget are trillions of dollars apart. How do we have a debate when there are almost no common facts to work with? How does what does happen make sense? Well, as it turns out, the balance of power usually resides with neither Democrats nor Republicans. Both are left trying to find a way to reach independents who share the philosophical framework of neither party. Frequently those efforts are neither pretty nor effective. So the battles go on. If enough people throw up their hands and give up, they will get the government they deserve.

    As it happens, politics is usually a self-correcting mechanism. Sometimes fads have to run their course, and prove their failure. It can be painful. It can be disastrous. It can result in many false starts and tremendous injustice. Sometimes it results in the death of nations and civilizations. I do not see how any competent person can be neutral about that. So we keep trying.

    1. Craig, I was with you until the last few sentences. I like to believe that politics is self-correcting, also, but for those who believe that, it seems we CAN be neutral about "false starts and tremendous injustice." Maybe neutral is not the feeling I have — I feel engaged, but I definitely don't feel that escalating to civil war is advisable. Your example of tobacco is so apt; there was much "collateral damage" from the delay in getting to the Surgeon General's warnings, etc., and the fact that we didn't go all the way to Prohibition, there is still much disease and death. But most of us are content with our current position on tobacco. Can we get to that kind of equilibrium on abortion, birth control, climate change, nuclear disarmament, pre-emptive war, etc.? I feel engaged in these discussions, but want to believe the "arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice . . ."

  7. Back on March 9, Rev. Richard Cizik (President, The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good) had an excellent piece published in "The Huffington Post" under the title of "What War on Religion?" I wish evangelicals had paid more attention to that fine article.

    In the opening paragraph, he cites Groucho Marx's definition of politics: "The art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, then misapplying the wrong remedies." Isn't that what we see in the charge that the Obama administration is conducting a "war on religion"?

  8. Dems' platform committee endorses 'gay marriage'
    The national Democratic Party's platform committee endorsed homosexual "marriage" this weekend and called for the repeal of a federal law that recognizes marriage as between a man and a woman
    What a plank you professing Born-Again Dems...