When the Republican presidential primaries began I didn’t think we’d be locked in a heated culture-war debate on Super Tuesday. But here we are in an intense conflict over contraception coverage, health care and religious liberty that’s laden with misleading and offensive charges.
Almost forgotten amid the fallout of Rush Limbaugh’s vicious attacks against Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke last week was the fact that Senate Republicans (along with three Democrats: Senators Bob Casey, Joe Manchin and Ben Nelson) voted in favor of the Blunt Amendment, which purported to protect religious liberty but in reality would have allowed any employer to refuse to cover any health care service based on any moral objection. While Republicans treated the legislation as necessary to protect religious employers from being forced to cover contraception, in practice it would have given corporations the power to come between families and the health care they need.
Unfortunately, many conservative religious leaders have offered misleading defenses of this extreme bill and attacked the contraception coverage requirement despite its exemptions and accommodations for religious institutions. Leaders ranging from Richard Land to Chuck Colson to Cardinal Timothy Dolan insist that A) this debate has nothing to do with contraception, and B) the Obama administration is forcing religious institutions to pay for contraception coverage. Their argument is factually incorrect and out of touch with real families. Churches and faith-based institutions such as religious schools, hospitals, charities, health care providers and universities do not have to pay for coverage of contraception if they object to it. And asserting that this debate has nothing to do with contraception doesn’t change the fact that their preferred policy would jeopardize access to birth control and other health services for many families. Ignoring the real-world consequences of a political debate isn’t a sign of commitment to principle, it’s a symptom of extreme ideology.
Meanwhile, a pivotal moment in the GOP presidential contest looms today, and the culture-war debate has obscured how extreme the candidates’ economic platforms are. Last week, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center revealed that Mitt Romney’s economic plan would raise taxes on the working poor, gut Medicaid for struggling families, give the wealthiest Americans a tax cut of more than $1 million per year and increase the deficit. If Romney gains a decisive lead today, as many are predicting, I hope the media pays more attention to his very real economic radicalism than to President Obama’s imaginary war on religion.
It’s unfortunate that some clergy think it’s appropriate to attack political leaders’ religious beliefs. Last week it was Franklin Graham insinuating that President Obama might be a fake Christian secretly in league with the Muslim Brotherhood. Yesterday, a Michigan pastor who introduced Rick Santorum at a campaign rally arguing that Mitt Romney is not a Christian.
Clark predicted that Romney’s Mormon faith will be a factor for Republicans in Tuesday’s Michigan primary, particularly in the western part of the state where evangelical Christians are expected to make up a larger share of the GOP vote.
Asked if he believes Romney is a Christian, Clark answered: “No.”
When reporters at the event asked if the former Senator shared the pastor’s view, a Santorum campaign spokesperson said no. That isn’t good enough. If Santorum has as much integrity as he wants us to believe he has, he’ll denounce this pastor’s rhetoric and apologize to Romney. Anything less is complicity in an attack on Romney’s faith.
This weekend, Rick Santorum said that John F. Kennedy’s famous speech about his Catholic faith “makes me throw up” and “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Strong words from Santorum, who’s slipping in the polls in Michigan (which holds its GOP presidential primary today) and looking to capitalize on his position as the GOP’s “culture warrior.”
Santorum’s comments are just a continuation of the “war on religion” narrative the Right has ginned up, painting religious conservatives as victims of a secularized American society that doesn’t understand, respect, or appreciate their deeply held religious beliefs. The problem with this argument is that it’s totally bogus. Religious Americans fall on all sides of the political spectrum and true religious freedom is under no threat in our country. All citizens are able to worship freely, raise their children to adhere to whatever religious and political views they choose, homeschool their children if they see fit, and so on. (In fact, those looking for threats to the First Amendment should start with the Muslim-American communities who are facing opposition from people like Rick Santorum to efforts to construct places of worship).
Also, Santorum is trying to play into the hands of voters and pundits who erroneously view religion and politics as a zero-sum game– either we have a “strict separation between church and state” or we have sectarian religious views dominating political decisions and political leaders imposing their religious views on others. But most Americans cherish our Constitutional freedoms and the fact that the “separation of church and state” is about both protecting our government from undue sectarian influence and protecting religious institutions from undue governmental involvement. As Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect put it:
People of faith have always had an important role in American politics, and no one wants to diminish that. But public policy isn’t built on religious belief, and if people of faith want a role in the public sphere, they have to argue their position with reason and evidence, not religious dogma. This is a quintessentially American value, affirmed by nearly every president in this nation’s history.
This is a nuanced, complicated debate but the bottom line is this: people of faith don’t have to check their religious values at the door in this country; we all know that our belief systems influence the way we view the world and the role of government. This isn’t about imposing a theocratic agenda, but about bringing faith-based views into the marketplace of ideas in a pluralistic society. For Santorum to play into a tired culture war narrative with a simplistic description of the relationship between faith and politics is unhelpful to our public debates.
The comments came in the context of an attack on President Obama’s environmental record, with Santorum alleging that the President has a “theology not based on the Bible” and a “worldview that puts the earth above man.” But Santorum should probably rethink this religious critique given that the environmental positions he dismisses find support in the teachings of his own Catholic faith.
Most clearly, Catholic leaders acknowledge the reality that human-caused climate change is a real and growing danger to our planet. For the Catholic Church, this is a profound moral challenge that trumps partisan ideology. In contrast, Rick Santorum ignores the scientific consensus on climate change, calling it “patently absurd,” “junk science,” and a conspiratorial “scheme” by the left to justify more government regulation.
Santorum elaborated on his views at a campaign stop in Ohio last week, where he told a story about anti-pollution efforts in Pittsburgh to emphasize his point that local environmental regulations (not federal or state) are adequate to take care of problems:
[Someone came to Pittsburgh] during the heyday of the steel industry when we didn’t have any environmental regulations in Allegheny County. And someone looked at it and saw — it was night all the time in Pittsburgh, and it was black. And they said to Pittsburgh, “Abandon it.”
And what did we do? Well, we here locally, not the federal government, not the state government, came forward and said, “Well we’ve got to do something about this.” And eventually the community gathered together and passed clean air regulations, and was able to begin to change things. There’s obviously a role for government to play in making sure we have responsible environmental stewardship.
What’s more, Pittsburgh’s air quality is still one of the worst in the country. And one of the primary causes is the pollution that blows in from factories outside the city (and thus outside city ordinance laws). The new emission standards that are spurring change from these factories? You guessed it, federal requirements.
As Bill Peduto, the Pittsburgh councilman who sponsored the city’s Clean Air Act explained. ”Action is required from the federal level, but action is also required at the local [level],” he said.
The reason for this is obvious. Pollution is literallythe textbook example of a negative externality (a social cost from an economic activity that spills over to a third party). As Pittsburgh knows, contaminated rivers and air currents flow freely across geographic borders. And states or cities desperate to attract businesses face significant economic incentives to engage in a race to the bottom with their neighbors, jeopardizing public health on a massive scale.
As Santorum should know, the Catholic idea of subsidiarity addresses this exact issue. The principle teaches that civic challenges are best addressed by the least centralized entity that is capable of handling the scope of the issue. Santorum’s suggestion that local regulation is sufficient continues his consistent mistake of appropriating the first part of this teaching in service of a “small government” agenda while ignoring the issue of capability.
For a better application of subsidiarity to the issue of environmental regulation, Santorum again needs only look to his own Church, which actively supports international talks to develop a global agreement that addresses climate change. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI and other Catholic leaders are particularly concerned that pollution disproportionately caused by emissions from developed countries is hurting poor nations least able to respond.
I’m not sure what part of the Church’s concerns Santorum thinks is based on “phony theology,” but maybe he should have the consistency to criticize his own Church as strongly as he does the President if he thinks they’re so misguided.
Rick Santorum’s speech at CPAC on Friday included this impassioned segment about how the right to healthcare is not a proper right that comes from a higher power, but a manufactured one pushed by liberals seeking to make people dependent on government. (Video from Right Wing Watch):
This of course, is entirely at odds with the teachings of Santorum’s Catholic faith. Here are the U.S. Bishops on this exact issue:
The bishops believe access to basic, quality health care is a universal human right not a privilege
All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care that they can afford, and it should not depend on their stage in life, where or whether they or their parents work, how much they earn, where they live, or where they were born. There may be different ways to accomplish this, but the Bishops’ Conference believes health care reform should be truly universal and genuinely affordable.
Santorum, of course, already tried and failed to explain this contradiction earlier last week — seemingly arguing that because God created reason, and his reason leads him to an ultra-conservative position on this issue, his faith must do the same.