Lisa Miller, who isn’t really a journalist but plays one at Newsweek and the Washington Post, dons her White House advisor hat to instruct President Obama on how he should deal with the religious fanatics who have been plaguing him lately:
It seems far-fetched, from my perspective, to think that God should have any opinion at all about contraceptive technology, let alone about which corporate entity should pay for it. Yet that is the argument the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made last week. God doesn’t like birth control, they said. To force Catholic organizations to pay for birth control goes against God and so against the consciences of right-minded Catholics who believe in God.
That’s the way of the pseudo-journalist: don’t even try to understand, much less explain, the positions of those with whom you disagree; instead, make them into a caricature that can be sneered at and rendered unworthy of respect by the state.
The First Amendment protects the bishops’ rights to freely believe such things — to teach them in their parishes and in their schools, to say them out loud without fear of reprisal. That is a good thing. Yet last week, the furor over protecting the religious beliefs of that small minority grew so loud that the president blinked. He entered a negotiation on the bishops’ terms, over their so-called freedoms.
So now it isn’t about what the Roman Catholic Church–a world-wide organization of over a billion people–believes and teaches, or even what millions of faithful American Catholics believe and practice, even if imperfectly. It’s about a few hundred guys in fancy duds, and their concerns certainly can and should have been ignored by the White House.
In Washington, religious groups are interest groups. Just like the National Rifle Association or the farm lobby, the bishops want their priorities to take precedence over everyone else’s — and their clerical garb gives their position gravitas.
Religious groups are “interest groups.” That mention of freedom of religion in the First Amendment? Window dressing for the booboisie. The rights, concerns, and work of religious groups is actually no more consequential than that of the National Asparagus Association or the Pork Belly Council. Let ‘em stand in line, or better yet they should pony up the piasters if they want the leader of the free world to listen to them. There’s an election coming, you know.
But in truth, the bishops’ claims to moral truth are just that — claims. Their religious vows do not make them, in any objective sense, more moral than anybody else. (And, to bring up a sore subject, the sex abuse scandals of a decade ago might force one to conclude that the moral compasses of a few American bishops are extremely out of whack.)
Last time I checked, the bishops–and their allies on this issue among evangelicals, liberal Catholics, Jews, and Muslims– were not basing their claim on any delusions about their moral superiority. (That would be Nancy Pelosi and friends, claiming that they and the HHS mandate are the only thing standing between women and chattel slavery.) And given that the bishops and their allies are basing their argument on the First Amendment, rather than any claims about their personal morality (lots of the people opposing the mandate even think birth control is hunky-dory), the gratuitous reference to the sex abuse scandal is not only irrelevant, but reprehensible.
The “religious freedom” argument, then, is a red herring, an election-year ploy to make the president look un-American.
You wonder whether people like Miller even bother to think about what their fingers are doing when they type this kind of drivel. Many, perhaps most, of the Catholic bishops supported Obama in the last election. They also supported the passage of Obamacare, with proper conscience safeguards. All kinds of liberals–including Joe Biden, for goodness sake–thought the mandate was a bad idea because of the First Amendment implications. Is the vice president trying to make his boss look bad? Is he in the habit of throwing up “red herrings” to prevent his boss from doing something he wants to do? You know, when Joe Biden is the voice of reason about anything, we know we’re in trouble.
Here, then, are some suggestions for the president as he enters these new culture wars.
●Have some moral backbone. By negotiating with zealots, you lose the high ground. By standing up to the zealots, you show them for what they are: zealots.
That’s right. Stand up to the loonies, and show the world what they really are. Joe Biden, E. J. Dionne, Kirsten Powers, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (J-CT), Sen Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV), heck, half or more of the American people–zealots, Neanderthals, sexists, the lot of them. The president shouldn’t even acknowledge their existence–it just dignifies them.
●Stress the record. This is the president, remember, who infuriated his base by inviting the anti-gay-marriage evangelical pastor Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration and who stood up in federal court to protect the National Day of Prayer.
Darn right. The Good Lord, whoever he/she/it is, knows that having Rick Warren pray at the inauguration more than trumps the hysterical First Amendment claims of a bunch of old men in dresses. (Rick Warren opposes the mandate, you say? When did he convert to Rome and get a pointy hat?)
As far as “the record” is concerned, is it really necessary to point out that this is the administration that just got its head handed to it by a unanimous Supreme Court for backing a view of the First Amendment that Chief Justice John Roberts called “remarkable” (as in remarkably wrong, or remarkably restrictive, or remarkably crabbed). Yeah, he should definitely stress that record.
Secularists do not see Obama as their guy in the White House.
That’s true. People like Barry Lynn of Americans United, whose view of the First Amendment sounds like something straight out of Pravda, think the only place religion should be protected is inside the individual’s skull, and the president may not agree with that.
●Tell a different religion story. It’s time to remind people that in a democracy citizens have to participate in activities they don’t like and sometimes pay for things they don’t believe in.
Taxpayer dollars have funded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of more than 6,000 U.S. service members and countless more civilians — and yet the conversation on the moral dimensions of these conflicts barely exists in the public sphere. My conscience tells me the death penalty is wrong, yet 58 people sit on federal death row, and some fraction of my federal tax dollars will inevitably contribute to their execution.
Miller demonstrates yet again that she doesn’t understand the issue. This isn’t about taxpayer dollars going to the government. It’s about the government forcing private organizations to give money to other private organizations (insurance companies) to pay for something that they believe is wrong.
Does the government spend my tax money in ways I don’t approve of? Of course–I doubt that there’s a single taxpayer in American who can’t agree with that, no matter what their politics are. But there’s a way to deal with that, and it’s by being politically active, voting the bums out, and changing the way the state spends our money. In addition, from the standpoint of moral responsibility, it isn’t me who is deciding to spend my money in immoral ways, and it isn’t me who is actually doing the spending.
That’s a completely different matter from being forced by the state to use my money to directly buy a product that I don’t want, and to do so under threat of a far greater amount of money being extracted from me as a penalty for refusing.
Obama made the Golden Rule the moral foundation of his 2008 campaign, and he has started to speak this way again. In his budget speech in Northern Virginia this week, he linked a sense of collective destiny to patriotism. “Here in America, the story has never been about what we can do just by ourselves; it’s about what we can do together.”
It is a difficult moment to convince Americans that they should care about their neighbors as much as themselves, but if anyone can make the case, this president has the rhetorical gifts to do so. He needs to use them.
And what that has to do with the HHS mandate beats the daylights out of me. But then, I’m not a pseudo-journalist getting paid by the Washington Post to offer political advice to the Obama re-election campaign.