Monday, February 20, 2012

All Male Panels and the Culture Wars

By Gary Berg-Cross

Thursday on Capitol Hill in Washington Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, invited a panel for a four hour plus hearing on what he called a “federal rule's impact on freedom of religion and conscience” before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the House of Representatives. What we saw in the now infamous first panel was a Lutheran, 2 Baptist clergymen and an Orthodox rabbi who joined a Roman Catholic bishop on an all male panel. They proceeded to tell gathered lawmakers that President. Obama’s latest policy of shifting the responsibility for paying for such things as contraceptives and prenatal screenings from religious institutions to their health insurers was unworkable. I guess they are policy wonks too. But they had much more to say about their fears. The compromise did not allay their concerns about government entanglement with religion. In the words one hears from Republican candidates, its more of a broad, moral, "theological" argument. That seemed to be the big topic although to many it was about women’s rights to health care including contraception.
Why no women on the first panel? Well according to California Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who heads the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, it was all clear. She is not a member of the clergy, unlike the five men who did testify in the first panel. Representative Joe Walsh, Republican of Illinois, defended the choice this by dodging from individual rights to some vague combination that mixed organized religion rights and freedom:
“This is not about women. This is not about contraceptives. This is about religious freedom.”
The representative might have been better informed on such things if he had attended Rob Boston’s recent talk on what the Founders really intended here.
As someone at CNN said “welcome to the culture wars 2.0, where the front lines now are religious freedom and contraceptives.” This indeed may be a political gambit to switch the topic from a winning liberal issue on preventive and women’s health to a cultural-religious one. That was somewhat of Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va) who addressed the 5 very clerical men during the first half of the hearing:
"I believe today’s hearing is a sham. I have to believe each of you came here in good faith." But he added, "Surely you are being used for a political agenda."
I’ve now seen pictures of the 5 men in a number of venues, but I knew little about them. Who were they? Well here are their names and affiliations:
  1. Rev. William E. Lori, Roman Catholic Bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., who testified on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in opposition to the rule.

  1. Reverend Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and moral philosophy professor. (wow, a Rev. Dr. !)
  1. C. Ben Mitchell, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Tennessee
  1. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Director Straus Center of Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, and
  1. Ethics professor Craig Mitchell of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
What they had to say had quite a bit of dog whistling. Lori, the Catholic bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, testified on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which denounced the compromise last week, saying it still raised "serious moral concerns." Bishop Lori is known as a “conservative cleric who has carried out controversial church mandates in the past. Some critics, however, say he does not question the church hierarchy and, at times, has acted harshly in order to please his superiors (from Wikipedia).” I think that Stephan Colbert did a reasonable job of laying out the hypocrisy of the Bishops on the contraception topic.
The Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the large Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, told lawmakers that the St. Louis-based denomination:
"stand(s) with our friends in the Catholic Church" in opposition to a recent government ruling on contraception.
Harrison went on to say that the synod's opposition to "abortion-causing drugs" was one reason the denomination maintains its own health plan. He’s worried that the provision in the government's
new ruling would "grandfather" the Missouri Synod's plan, meaning its 50,000 members would not have to participate in the new mandate. Isn’t that a solution?
No, apparently he wants a total capitulation that imposes his values on others. It’s about moral conscience as defined by organized groups. It’s about violating the consciences of these group members, who feel they can impose their values on others. Sort of like the White Man’s moral burden idea. We should understand what a solution is to group like this.
C. Ben Mitchell of Union University told the committee the rule "is an unconscionable intrusion by the state into the consciences of American citizens."

"Contrary to portrayals in some of the popular media, this is not just a Catholic issue," said Mitchell, Graves professor of moral philosophy at the Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn. "All people of faith - and even those who claim no faith - have a stake in whether or not the government can violate the consciences of its citizenry. Religious liberty and the freedom to obey one's conscience is also not just a Baptist issue. It's an American issue enshrined in our founding documents."

There they go with that slanted view of the Founders again. They should have come to Rob Boston's talk to hear what the Constitution says and what the Founders thought about freedom of religion.
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik an Orthodox rabbi described in an Israeli paper as of impeccable pedigree at Yeshiva University. He testified orthodoxically which I guess is the old fashion word for fundamentalist:
"The administration impedes religious liberty by unilaterally redefining what it means to be religious." “The putative accommodation is no accommodation at all,” said the rabbi, from NYC:
“Religious organizations would still be obligated to provide employees with an insurance policy that facilitates acts violating the organization’s religious tenets.”
It’s all about violation and what it means to be religious? This seems like more than a bit of a stretch. As a BBC article points out Judeo-Christian ideas about contraception come from church teachings rather than scripture, as the Bible has little to say about the subject. But then again the rabbi is probably more comfortable in a religio-centric national environment.
Craig Mitchell, associate professor of Christian ethics at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas told members the requirement
"is wrong not just for religious conservatives.It's wrong for all Americans, because it takes away the freedom of the citizens while emboldening the federal government to do whatever it wants,",. "It's wrong because it violates the Constitution. It's wrong because it violates religious liberty. It's wrong because it forces people to violate their consciences. ... This ruling is just plain wrong for America."
There’s lots of culture war bricks to be thrown about in rhetoric like this and I hope that we are saved by some sensible discussion. As part of more discussion we might get to the uncomfortable issues of contraception and sexual activity.
This very recent discussion which started as a health care discussion now seems like a regressive, perhaps reactionary one, with a subtext of group’s attitude toward sex and sexual morality. We had moved towards a more progressive attitude from our Puritan days. Even mainstream religious groups had come to see sex as other than a pure danger. Some Christians moved to the view sex as one of God's great gifts. One can rationalize this since sexual bonding helps preserve the institution of marriage and birth control helps mitigate the stresses caused by too many children.
This pragmatic view of mainstream Protestant churches on the use of birth control lead to a more tolerant policy of quietly letting its followers use birth control as their own consciences dictated as opposed to a doctrinaire view centrally imposed.
In a tide of fundamentalism we’re back to an intolerant and centralized view with imposed morality. As a result modern family planning/birth control "cannot be spoken of without repugnance. " It's now denounced as "demoralising to character and hostile to national welfare." All of which means that Culture War Part 2, with such things as silencing of women, may be with us for this political campaign period at least. We should all gear ourselves up with well-considered, humanistic moral arguments.


Edd.Doerr said...

Great column, Gary. Nearly all of the media commentary focus on the ideology claims of church brass and not on the health and freedom of religion and conscience claims of the vast numbers of Catholics and non-Catholics employed and/or served by church-related hospitals, colleges and social service agencies. And exceedingly rare (except for my numerous blog postings) is mention of the fact that these church-related institutions are generously funded by taxes extracted from citizens of all religious persuasions.

I will have more on this and Humanist Priorities and Strategies in an Election Year when I address the WASH meeting in Wheaton on March 3.

Since Gary brought up Rep Darrell Issa (R-CA), if you have watched this guy on Bil Maher's show, you will notice what a slick operator he is. If you ever shake hands with this guy, you will want to count your fingers. By the way, isn't Issa the Arabic word for Jesus? Issa is of Lebanese extraction.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

I've seen Issa on Bill Maher's show too. He is a Rep from CA and known to the Hollywood crowd. I believe that he one of the wealthiest Reps in the House, if not the wealthiest.