God and Caesar

In his regular Monday e-letter today, noted theologian Martin Marty tackles the recent uproar over HHS regulations requiring religious institutions—including charities, hospitals and schools–to provide health insurance to their employees that covers some procedures with which their church and members disagree. He notes that this sort of conflict between government rule making and religious dogma is hardly new.

“We could have added any number of others that had to do with the collision of interests pitting “the common good” versus “individual freedom,” especially freedom of religion. Pasteurization of milk, vaccination, and chlorination of water were among them. Beyond the needs of the body but dealing with the body politic have been vast numbers of others: the military draft, Sabbath and Sunday laws, and compulsory flag-salutes were or are among them. Often small religious groups best raise conscience matters. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Scientist, Seventh-Day Adventists, Latter-Day Saints, the Amish. None of the issues could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, so majorities of voters or legislatures or justices ruled. This means that they used “coercion against conscience,” driving some citizens to inconvenience and prison. There were often accommodations and compromises along the way. Somehow the republic survived.”

 These are uncomfortable issues, because they don’t fall neatly into the American presumption that every argument has a “right side” and a “wrong side.” In these situations, policymakers are faced with a conflict of rights. 

Citizens have the right to believe as they see fit, although the practice of those beliefs has often been curtailed by the courts. You can believe in smoking peyote, for example, but if “laws of general application” forbid drug use, you can’t actually smoke it. (For what it’s worth, I think the Court was wrong in that case, but what if your religion required sacrificing your first-born? Certainly, the government could intervene.) The law requires parents to provide medical treatment to their seriously ill children even when their religion rejects such treatment.  Etc.

The conflict, as Marty points out, is between what we believe to be necessary for the public good and respect for the beliefs of all citizens. The resolution of that conflict requires us to exercise restraint–it is not enough to say “the majority of people want this.” The Bill of Rights is–as I keep telling students–a counter-majoritarian document. In America, the majority does not always rule. We are obliged to respect the beliefs and practices of people with whom we disagree so long as those beliefs and practices do not harm others.

What constitutes harm, as Marty reminds us, has been a matter of debate throughout American history.

In this case, the harm was to the many thousands of employees of religious organizations who don’t share that organization’s beliefs. Should a Protestant nurse working in a Catholic hospital be denied coverage for birth control, when such coverage is required in other places of employment? On the other hand, should the religious employer providing that insurance be forced to enable her use of contraception? What does respect for individual rights and religious liberty require?

I tend to feel the Administration made the right call on this particular issue, but in a country that truly respects religious autonomy, these conflicts between God and Caesar are never inconsequential.


  1. This morning Joe Scarborough, whom I think is usually pretty reasonable, is saying that the fact that a number of states have similar rules concerning including contraceptives in health care plans is irrelevant…that the states have the right to do what they want without Washington intervention. Huh? Last time the First Amendment applies to the states as a result of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    Also, Just wait until somebody (again) argues that because she opposes wars on religious grounds, she can hold back a percentage of her income taxes.

  2. This is an issue that is damn hard to conclude either way, and I can see the points of both sides of the argument. It’s a tough call.

    The simplest thing for the Catholic Church to do is realize that the use of birth control is not inconsistent with its teachings. Those teachings say that every act of intercourse must be open to the possibility of conception. No birth control method is 100% effective, so even someone using a method that is 99% effective has a 1% chance of conception. Seems to me that act is open to the possibility of conception, even if it’s a remote possibility.

    Oops, there I go again, expecting theology to be entirely logical.

Comments are closed.