Among religious conservatives, it has become fashionable to declare they are being oppressed and discriminated against. Two recent articles in the Deseret News echo those fashionable claims.
The first from August 9 proclaimed:
Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued new federal regulations that run roughshod over the moral conscience of many Americans.
Promulgated under the health care reform act commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” the new regulations would require an employer to have a health plan that covers sterilization and contraception — which could include drugs that cause abortion — as part of a larger set of “preventative services” for women. These practices are morally repugnant to many Americans — for some, because it directly contradicts their faith. For example, the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which includes roughly a quarter of Americans, explicitly prohibits such practices.
The second, from August 12, declared:
It is important to note that much of the anti-religious hostility worldwide is directed against Muslims of various kinds. It also is noteworthy that not all anti-religious hostility is overt. While the report didn’t measure this, popular entertainment now seems to have an anti-religious bent, while recent new U.S. regulations requiring insurance companies to provide contraception without a co-pay also is a form of discrimination against companies and individuals that wish to adhere to religious principles.
These articles share a common set of assumptions, articulated by Mormon leader Dallin Oaks in February of this year. Oaks speech at Chapman University (transcript here) almost perfectly articulated the conservative position on religious freedom. He argued that respect for religion is decreasing which leads to a loss of religious freedom. As fewer people belong and believe, their views will hold less sway in an increasingly pluralistic, secular society; the religious will face persecution as laws are passed which are contrary to their beliefs (Oaks was talking about gay marriage and these editorialists are talking about birth control but the principle is the same).
Responding to Dallin Oaks’ speech, I argued:
Relativism, which Oaks uses here rather than modernity, invites us to question revealed authority, it invites us to place personal experience and perspective into important roles to interpret and understand the world. Modernity by its very nature dilutes and reduces the influence and power of religious authority and revealed truth. It’s not, as Oaks claims, a question of rights that claim ascendancy over religious freedom, but rather than religion must share a prominent place in understanding and constructing an understanding of the moral authority of the universe.
In another piece , I wrote:
. . . what he’s bemoaning is the lack of automatic repsect given to religious beliefs. As more people become skeptical of religious claims, those claims no longer automatically carry the day. Claiming that one’s actions are motivated by religious belief is insufficient to justify discrimination against other persons. Yet, that is exactly the claim he implicitly makes in his speech – that religious objections to homosexuality should be sufficient to justify not obeying anti-discrimination laws.
The authors of the D-News pieces are worried that claims of religious belief and faith are insufficient. The argument fails to prove that loss of influence is the same as being discriminated against. Is loss of influence the same as being oppressed?
The August 12 piece, in observing that religious oppression and discrimination exist, claims that popular entertainment has an “anti-religious bent” but fails to mention that the church has done a poor job making its case. A rising number of Americans are comfortable identifying as non-religious; publicly, outspoken and often eloquent atheists have called the doctrines of faith into question and have argued that faith itself is insufficient to justify public policy.
The faithful have only themselves to blame. The church has for far too long been a bastion of discrimination. From Alternet:
But while American society is moving forward on all these fronts, many churches not only refuse to go along, they’re actively moving backward. Most large Christian sects, both Catholic and Protestant, have made fighting against gay rights and women’s rights their all-consuming crusade. And young people have gotten this message loud and clear: polls find that the most common impressions of Christianity are that it’s hostile, judgmental and hypocritical. In particular, an incredible 91% of young non-Christians say that Christianity is “anti-homosexual“, and significant majorities say that Christianity treats being gay as a bigger sin than anything else. (When right-wing politicians thunder that same-sex marriage is worse than terrorism, it’s not hard to see where people have gotten this impression.)
On other social issues as well, the gap between Gen Nexters and the church looms increasingly wide. Younger folks favor full access to the morning-after pill by a larger margin than older generations (59% vs. 46%). They reject the notion that women should return to “traditional roles” — already a minority position, but they disagree with it even more strongly than others. And they’re by far the least likely of all age groups to say that they have “old-fashioned” values about family and marriage (67% say this, as compared to 85% of other age groups).
In a society that’s increasingly tolerant and enlightened, the big churches remain stubbornly entrenched in the past, clinging to medieval dogmas about gay people and women, presuming to lecture their members about how they should vote, whom they should love, how they should live.
Rhetoric about religious discrimination in the US is almost always grounded in religion’s loss of unquestioned and unquestionable authority. Religious persons are longer able to simply “My religion says . . .” and end the discussion. That loss of automatic respect deeply distresses many faithful persons, especially religious conservatives for whom the church embodies a coherent moral system and reliable source of authority. From February:
Dallin Oaks felt it necessary to defend religious authority but he named it religious freedom. The fear he raised throughout his speech – that religious preaching would be silenced – is unlikely to come to pass through legal means. Rather, like the segregationist preachers of the 1950s and 60s, through simple social opprobrium. A pastor today who preached a fiery pro-segregation sermon would (in most churches) be run out of the pulpit. Things that were socially acceptable not so long ago are no longer socially acceptable.
Conservative Christians successfully created the public image that they and they alone spoke for Christianity (watch almost any news show – when they want a Christian voice it’s going to come from some arch conservative preacher). The conservative Christian voice has for a long time been the only public voice of Christianity. This version of Christianity seems increasingly irrelevant to many Americans. If the church is anti-gay, anti-contraception, anti-woman, then why should Americans who have no problem with gay people, contraception or women in leadership adhere to its beliefs or even accord its beliefs and doctrines automatic respect?
Faced with that dynamic, religious conservatives are forced to make the tenuous claim that their inability to tell other people what to believe and how to act amounts to discrimination and oppression. They are literally saying “If we can’t keep women from using contraception, our freedom of conscience is being violated.” Not so many years ago, a preacher could stand in the pulpit and deliver a firebreathing sermon against racial integration and few people would bat an eye; today, such preachers exist only in fringe churches. Today lots of preachers deliver anti-gay messages from their pulpits. Those preachers and their flocks are concerned that in not so many years, such preaching will be the redoubt of the fringe, the retrograde and socially unacceptable – they are afraid of going the way of the segregationist preachers of yesteryear. The right declared a culture war and they’re realizing the once unthinkable – they’re losing; claims that they are discriminated against and oppressed, that our culture has an anti-religious bent should be understood in that context.
The fight over contraception is grounded in the legal concept of the right to privacy. IIRC, 95% of American women will use some form of medical contraception during their lives. That horse, it seems, has long since left the barn. The only front on which religious conservatives perceive themselves as achieving any success is on the question of abortion (although its fair to note that public opinion on abortion hasn’t changed in forty years, legislatively conservatives have succeeded in making it damned difficult for women to get abortions). By making the false argument that some contraceptives might cause abortions, conservatives are desperately trying to gain leverage. If they can stop people using contraception, then they might have some leverage on the whole premarital sex front and might be able to alter the moral landscape. To my mind, its a frantic, last ditch effort. We need to resist it and call it what it is, but it is a desperate gambit.
When the court held in Griswold that the Constitution respects and protects the right to privacy, specifically in this case concerning access to contraception, it laid the legal groundwork for Roe (legalizing abortion), for Lawrence (striking down sodomy laws), and potentially legalizing same sex marriage. Religious conservatives are arguing the state has a right to police sexual behavior. When, for instance, people on the right argue that pharmacists have a right to refuse to dispense the morning after pill, they are defending the right of one person to force his or her morals on another person. If the right can roll back access to contraception, they believe they can roll back the sexual revolution. The logic works like this: Readily available contraception made it possible for people to engage in “consequence free” sex; which created an environment in which marriage was no longer the only avenue for sex; once that happened, abortion became necessary because people believed in and experiences consequence free sex. Connected to this change in attitudes was the freedom to choose to be gay becoming socially acceptable; because the right to privacy now struck down sodomy laws, more people will choose to be gay and engage in “consequence free” unmarried sex and more people will choose to be gay. If readily available birth control can be successfully attacked, then the whole right to privacy will begin to crumble and the state can reintroduce controls on sexuality.
The conservative view of sexuality sees it as a powerful force, capable of wreaking massive destruction and requiring extensive controls through social opprobrium, legal restraints, and moral teaching. As the first two have largely fallen, the right is finding its moral teachings increasingly ineffective. Social and religious conservatives experience divorce, homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex and so on as traumatic breaks in the continuity of family. Keepign contraception out of people’s hands is a means to make sexuality costly enough that people won’t have it outside of marriage. The conservative story of sexuality is strikingly pre-modern, with contraception, sexual minorities, pre and post marital sexuality exiled from discussion and the cherished belief that people sex inside of marriage is the bes and only worthy sex. But social and legal norms no longer support that view. Religious authority is the last line of defense in the ongoing struggle against modern sexuality.
Requiring insurance plans to cover contraception, then, is a moral assault aimed directly at religious conservatives cherished religious authority. The territory in which religious faith holds sway in contemporary America will grow smaller. The struggle between secular authority and religious authority will have gone badly and the faithful will have lost yet another weapon in their fight against modernity. Religious conservatives experience this as a war against faith and against the faithful.