Has President Obama's Department of Health and Human Services awakened a sleeping giant?
In pews across America, Catholics listened yesterday to letters from their bishops denouncing an HHS requirement that forces virtually every employer in America to pay for health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.
As Nancy Pelosi complained during the health care debate, many of her coreligionists have "this conscience thing" concerning the sanctity of human life. Now the executive branch of the federal government is telling them to drop dead.
There is technically a small religious exemption, but it doesn't apply to most activities engaged in by communities of faith. For now, a church doesn't have to buy condoms for monks or the pill for nuns. But religious schools, hospitals, and social service providers will have to comply with the regulation.
Oddly, the best way for religious leaders to follow their conscience without running afoul of the government is to not serve or employ people outside the faith. "Sectarian self-segregation is O.K., but good Samaritanism is not," observes the columnist Ross Douthat. "The rule suggests a preposterous scenario in which a Catholic hospital avoids paying for sterilizations and the morning-after pill by closing its doors to atheists and Muslims, and hanging out a sign saying 'no Protestants need apply.'"
The American Catholic bishops have pointed out that even Jesus and his disciples might not have qualified for the narrowly tailored religious exemption. The practical result may be to force religious traditionalists out of charitable activities, much like the Catholic Church has been pushed out of the adoption business in Massachusetts.
According to some folks, that's perfectly fine. "Perhaps the Catholic Church should divest itself from activities that are not 100 percent religious in nature," was one typical reader response to an article about the controversy.
Never mind that caring for the sick, feeding the poor, and clothing the naked are considered religious activities in many faiths. Forget that no one is forced to work for a Catholic hospital or Baptist college. Pay no attention to other ways such workers could affordably obtain these services if they so choose. Under the HHS regulation, the coverage is required even if the employee objects.
Religious communities in contemporary America are voluntary. No one is forced to attend or support any church, profess any doctrine or creed. Government, however, upholds community norms at gunpoint.
You don't have to look very far to find comments suggesting that this rule is a good way to stick it to churches whose social teachings are deemed too reactionary. Even many American Catholics disagree with their church on birth control. But the regulation does raise interesting questions for people of many political stripes.
Will libertarians defend the freedom of conscience not just for the "individual who wants to sell lemonade, paint his or her house purple, hop on an airplane, ingest intoxicants, or marry someone from the same sex," but also the individual who doesn't want to fork over her money to help pay for activities that offend her faith?
Will conservatives who backed the Bush-era "faith-based initiatives" see the risk inherent in allowing administrations with different values to fund and regulate the missions of organizations guided by faith?
Will the Catholic left see how allowing the federal government to force people to buy health insurance they do not want can have unintended consequences?
This move could prove to be detrimental to a president whose reelection fight may well hinge on the outcome in a few states with large Catholic populations. Or it could reveal that in our tolerant age, many Americans possess little tolerance for values that are not their own.
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