At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories—of survival, and freedom, and hope—became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.
—Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
On Feb. 10 President Obama announced what administration officials are calling an “accommodation” to the earlier decision of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services to narrowly define the conscience exemption for religious entities that offer insurance coverage to their workers. As of this writing, the details of that “accommodation,” have not been fully studied. Care will be required to examine what this further articulation of the government’s policy will mean in practice.
The initial reaction of the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the president’s remarks has been understandably cautious but optimistic, noting that this development presents an opportunity for dialogue to resolve the impasse. Part of that optimism may stem from what Mr. Obama did not say. It is remarkable that he made no reference to the distinction made earlier by H.H.S. between “non-profit employers based on religious beliefs” and “religious employers.” It seems to have just evaporated. The president only mentioned “religious institutions,” univocally including in that term those entities that are “affiliated” with a church, “like Catholic hospitals and Catholic universities,” The significance of collapsing the two terms originally distinguished by H.H.S. cannot be overplayed. Although the U.S. bishops rightly objected to government enforcement of insurance coverage of services and procedures that are morally objectionable, the central issue following the H.H.S. decision of Jan. 20 was that the government—heretofore specifically precluded from doing so by the Constitution and over 230 years of court precedent— would now decide what it means for any church to be church and what defines the permissible exercise of religion. In the end, as a recent America editorial put it (2/13), churches would be forced to “to function as a sect, restricted to celebrating its own devotions on the margins of society.”
Clearly, as the U.S.C.C.B. noted, the president’s announcement Friday provides an opportunity to resolve the present impasse. But I believe that an even greater opportunity is before us—namely, to have a fundamental dialogue that is deeper and on a more prolonged basis about the role of religion in society in general and the nature of religious liberty in particular, especially as it applies to faith-based charitable, health and social service ministries in the United States. I also believe that the president, relying on his personal experience with churches, which he cited once again on Feb. 10, has not only the potential but also the responsibility to make a significant contribution to this more sustained and expansive discussion.
When Barack Obama, as a candidate, addressed the topic of racism in a historic speech, entitled, “A More Perfect Union,” given at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, he drew on the stirring words quoted above from his book, Dreams From My Father. Of course, the context was the controversial remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a man who, Mr. Obama said, “helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor...and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth—by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from H.I.V./AIDS.”
What Catholics and other believers who object to the H.H.S. ruling were saying, in effect, was simply this: The church that gave inspiration to Mr. Obama’s Christian faith would no longer be considered a church that qualifies for a conscientious exemption if it continues to serve “the community by doing God’s work here on Earth—by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from H.I.V./AIDS.” The church that captured Mr. Obama’s imagination would be restricted in how it functions as “a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.”
Similarly, when Mr. Obama recounted the narrative of his journey of faith, Catholics understood, for we too have a narrative, a story. The biblical stories of survival, freedom and hope, which became his story, have inspired Catholic individuals and religious communities to bring God’s saving work to the world not only through private works but by establishing institutions when there were none. The long arc of history that recounts the Catholic Church’s embrace of people of all faiths and none in providing health, education and welfare in society is as incontestable as it is impressive. We continue in our day to write the next chapter of that story by serving people in these various ways—we call them ministries—not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic and this is what Christ wants.
Three years ago to the date of the H.H.S. decision, President Obama reminded us in his inaugural address “that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture.” The church doing God’s work here on earth by serving the community not only is a large part of that patchwork heritage, but has oftentimes held it together.
My intention in pointing out the parallels between the language of Mr. Obama and those of us who were profoundly dismayed by the H.H.S. decision is simply to offer some common ground that may shape both the dialogue that needs to take place to unpack the details following the president’s announcement on Feb. 10, and the further national discussion on the role of religion in society. For a start, that framework should take into account the following:
1. A recognition that the challenge to the free exercise of religion comes not solely from the administration, but also from the courts and legislatures. The limitations being placed on the activities of religious bodies have been a growing concern for more than a decade.
2. While the H.H.S. decision was a symptom of what is happening around the country due to actions by the legislative and judicial branches, it was uniquely significant in that it affected all religious institutions on a federal level. There should be reluctance to make a national policy so inflexible that it fails to take into account the country’s diversity.
3. Related to this, the state should carefully consider the historical contributions of religious organizations to society and how this heritage has marked their identity before attempting to make distinctions that disqualify a religious organization from a freedom of conscience exemption.
4. A return to civility will be needed for us to seize fully the opportunities this newest development offers us. While the outrage to the H.H.S. decision was understandable, in the long run threats and condemnations have a limited impact. Leaders especially have a responsibility in this regard. They should always be leery of letting a situation escalate to an undesirable degree, particularly if it has the potential to bring lasting harm to both the church and the nation, and even worse, disproportionately affect the least among us.
5. We should never stop talking to one another. Though assurances were given on Feb. 10 that the administration’s plan all along was for government and church to work together to resolve conflicts over the H.H.S. mandate, the impression was that the government door was shut and it was up to the church to fix a problem it did not create. If that was a misperception, conversations could have at least clarified it.
6. Likewise, the church should make every attempt to clarify the misrepresentations about its intentions. For obvious reasons, the church will object to being forced to directly participate in activities that violate important core religious teachings, especially when proven alternative pathways already exist. However, in doing so the church is not trying to impose its will on others. Commenting on the place of Catholic social doctrine in public debate, Pope Benedict XVI unambiguously stated in his first encyclical, “God Is Love”: “It has no intention of giving the church power over the state. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.”
7. Finally, while this controversy has been painful for the nation and the church, it has raised awareness of the important contribution that religion makes to the common good. In an era that has seen not only the erosion of the free exercise of religion through laws, regulations and court decisions, as well as the attempts to marginalize the voices of believers, commentators from various perspectives and politicians of different persuasions have had to grapple with the role of religion in society. It would be a mistake to let the next news cycle topic distract us from exploring further this important issue, an issue that merited the first place in our Bill of Rights.
The kind of soul-sharing that inspired candidate Barack Obama’s historic contribution to the national dialogue on racism could serve us well in both the short and long term. With clarity and conviction he compellingly stated his own principles on religion in society, with which we agree. Now the challenge is for both government and church leadership to apply them in this and future situations afresh and with mutual respect.