In November 2011, E.J. Dionne's book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right was released. Dionne's premise:
The religious and political winds are changing. Tens of millions of religious Americans are reclaiming faith from those who would abuse it for narrow, partisan, and ideological purposes. And more and more secular Americans are discovering common ground with believers on the great issues of social justice, peace, and the environment. In Souled Out, award-winning journalist and commentator E. J. Dionne explains why the era of the Religious Right--and the crude exploitation of faith for political advantage--is over. [Emphasis supplied.]Maybe not E.J. A few days ago, Dionne wrote:
The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops will make an important decision this week: Do they want to defend the church’s legitimate interest in religious autonomy, or do they want to wage an election-year war against President Obama? And do the most conservative bishops want to junk the Roman Catholic Church as we have known it, with its deep commitment to both life and social justice, and turn it into the tea party at prayer?Dionne soon received his answer—a stinging rebuke to Dionne (but notably, NOT to the principle of "accommodation" of religion in our secular laws that Dionne espoused in arguing for expanding religious exemption from secular law with regard to the provision of health insurance by employers).
These are the issues confronting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ administrative committee when it begins a two-day meeting on Tuesday. The bishops should ponder how they transformed a moment of exceptional Catholic unity into an occasion for recrimination and anger. [Emphasis supplied.]
Dionne's arguments are untenable both as a practical matter and as a matter of principle. The Catholic Church in America will not be an ally of progressives—while they may ostensibly share certain views—against the death penalty, against unbridled capitalism, against wars; they simply do not advocate for their views on these issues in meaningful ways. To me, the more important weakness of Dionne's view remains his insistence on "accommodation" for religion in our secular laws. This violates not only central tenets of a our system of government—yes, the separation of church and state—but central and seminal principles of progressivism. Simply put, Dionne has lost his way in this debate.
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First, I want to be clear about what I am NOT espousing: I am not arguing that religions have no place in the public square, debating the issues of the day. To the contrary, like everyone else, religions have an absolute right to advocate for their views, and to fight for the reflection of their views, including those based on their religion, in our secular laws.
If the Catholic bishops believe what they say about contraception, contra Dionne, I do not see how they could, in principle, not fight for removal of contraceptive coverage from the insurance mandate. Dionne argues:
The bishops have legitimate concerns about the Obama compromise, including how to deal with self-insured entities and whether the wording of the HHS rule still fails to recognize the religious character of the church’s charitable work. But before the bishops accuse Obama of being an enemy of the faith, they might look for a settlement that’s within reach—one that would give the church the accommodations it needs while offering women the health coverage they need. I don’t see any communist plots in this.This makes no sense. The Catholic Church is fighting against the inclusion of contraception in the mandate for health insurance (at least with regard to women). It is logical and reasonable for the Church to continue to fight against contraception.
What was never logical or reasonable was Dionne's embrace of the principle of making special exemptions from our secular law for religiously affiliated institutions engaged in secular activities. Being an employer, outside of church employees, is a secular activity. Running a hospital is a secular activity. Running a school is a secular activity. When engaged in secular activities, religions (and religious persons) must abide by our secular laws. This simple proposition should not be difficult to comprehend and accept for a progressive who believes in the separation of church and state. But Dionne has lost his way, chasing the fool's gold of religious "allies" for progressive issues.
Consider Dionne's idea of "the religious character of the church’s charitable work" and what that might mean. If the charitable work of religions, even that which is secular in nature, is considered to be a religious practice, then the government cannot support such "religious work" without running afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In the 2002 case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court upheld a Cleveland school vouchers program that provided funds to religiously affiliated schools against an Establishment Clause challenge. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist stated:
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, prevents a State from enacting laws that have the “purpose” or “effect” of advancing or inhibiting religion. Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203, 222—223 (1997) (“[W]e continue to ask whether the government acted with the purpose of advancing or inhibiting religion [and] whether the aid has the ‘effect’ of advancing or inhibiting religion” (citations omitted)). There is no dispute that the program challenged here was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system. Thus, the question presented is whether the Ohio program nonetheless has the forbidden “effect” of advancing or inhibiting religion.It is notable that Dionne's formulation of a "religious character" of religion's secular activities has not been adopted by the Catholic Church, who instead argues in terms of religious freedom in secular life. Unlike Dionne, the Church seems aware that to argue that its secular activities are religious in character would put in jeopardy all the public funding the Church receives for its secular activities. In Zelman, the Court upheld the transfer of public funds to religiously affiliated institutions, reasoning that:
[W]here a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause. A program that shares these features permits government aid to reach religious institutions only by way of the deliberate choices of numerous individual recipients. The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual recipient, not to the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits.According to Dionne, the benefits will not be "incidental," but a primary aid to activities of a "religious character," and it will not rely on individual choices. Thus, even following the hard right view that Zelman represents regarding public funding for religious affiliated secular activities is put in jeopardy by Dionne's reasoning.
The reality is that Dionne compromises on the separation of church and state in an attempt to coopt religion on his side of certain arguments and becomes miffed when the Church does not stop precisely where he wanted it to on the issue of contraception. The sacrifice of principle by Dionne rendered no practical benefit—the very definition of a terrible "compromise."
By accepting the flawed principle of "religious liberty" from the requirement of adhering to secular laws with regard to secular activities, Dionne has made a figurative deal with the devil and has no true argument to counter the bishops' appeal to "religious liberty." The bishops' most recent statement says:
[W]e wish to clarify what this debate is—and is not—about. This is not about access to contraception [...] An unwarranted government definition of religion. The mandate includes an extremely narrow definition of what HHS deems a “religious employer” deserving exemption—employers who, among other things, must hire and serve primarily those of their own faith. We are deeply concerned about this new definition of who we are as people of faith and what constitutes our ministry. The introduction of this unprecedented defining of faith communities and their ministries has precipitated this struggle for religious freedom. Government has no place defining religion and religious ministry. HHS thus creates and enforces a new distinction—alien both to our Catholic tradition and to federal law—between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors, namely, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in our schools and universities, and others in need, of any faith community or none. Cf. Deus Caritas Est, Nos. 20-33. We are commanded both to love and to serve the Lord; laws that protect our freedom to comply with one of these commands but not the other are nothing to celebrate.E.J. Dionne has basically made the same argument in arguing for the "accommodation" for religion in our secular government. Dionne has argued that:
The bishops have legitimate concerns about the Obama compromise, including how to deal with self-insured entities and whether the wording of the HHS rule still fails to recognize the religious character of the church’s charitable work.No, they do not. And if they do, then Dionne cannot argue against the latest actions of the bishops on the basis of principle. Dionne wishes the bishops to cede their opposition to contraception in their secular activities, in Dionne's words, of a "religious character." There is no logic or reason in Dionne's position.
Dionne's problem remains his support for "accommodation" to religions in the secular activities. Dionne cannot muster an argument to distinguish his position in principle with that of the bishops.
The progressive position is this: (1) insure religious liberty and freedom by complete government non-interference with freedom of worship; and (2) insure religious liberty and freedom by insisting that no religion shall be exempt from our secular laws when such religions engage in secular activity.
These are the basic tenets of separation of church and state that have guided us since the founding of the republic. They were enunciated by JFK in his celebrated 1960 speech. They are a central tent of progressivism.
On a fool's errand to seek religious allies in the progressive fight, Dionne has lost his way.