Church, State & Contraception

The Obama administration has mandated a new rule intended to require health insurance plans including those offered by Catholic universities and charities to offer birth control to women free of charge. Catholic and other faith groups have risen in opposition to what is perceived as an unwarranted and perhaps unconstitutional breach of the distinctly American separation betwen church and state. 

What would Jesus say? Perhaps it would be that persons of faith first clean their own house before asking secular authorities to do the same.

Jesus famously stated that “I will build my church.” Beyond this declarative, he offered little guidance as to what form that church would or should take.

Self-appointed apostle Saul of Tarsus assumed much of the responsibiity for defining the early rules of the road for church doctrine and governance. But even as much as the (renamed) Paul attempted to enforce a monolithic church unity and discipline of his own making, he was forced to recognize the contributions of others – even those with different understandings or values. Writing of his sometimes rival Apollos to the Corinthians, Paul admits that God can work through both, commenting that: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

The early chuch was marked more by diversity (or heterodoxy) than orthodoxy of Christian doctrine and practice . That forever changed when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 AD. Church and state experienced a shotgun wedding. In the western empire, Roman Catholicism triumphed and no countervailing form of Christianity would be countenanced for over a millenium.

The Protestant reformation seemingly unleashed but almost as quickly suppressed renewed heterodoxy. Luther, Calvin, the Anglican Church, Puritans and other “reformers” adopted the winner-take-all attitude of the Catholics, each within their own respective enclaves. Tolerance extended no further than the doctrinal boundaries of each particularized denomination. All others be damned.

So, today we have the heirs to religious intolerance asking for secular tolerance, to a respect of religious and ethical diversity. For America, there is much at stake.

In a recent web post for National Review, Yuval Levin writes that the “administration is clearly determined to see civil society as merely an extension of the state and to clear out civil society – clearing out the mediating layers between the individual and the state … The idea is to leave as few non-individual players as possible in the private sphere, and to turn those few that are left into agents of the government.”

This is a time for persons of faith to take the moral high ground in favor of a society that includes the individual, the state and a continued mediating layer of diverse civil and religious institutions in-between. Advocating for a more tolerant polity depends on religious values that first embrace the diversity of views and practices within the realm of the spiritual as well as the secular.


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