A group of roughly 100 citizens (by our local newspaper’s count) gathered recently at the federal building in downtown Roanoke to protest what they perceived to be the Obama administration’s curtailment of their religious freedom by requiring that all employers providing health insurance assure that coverage includes contraception. I have recently written on such arguments and will not do so again here. Rather, I was intrigued by the perspective of one of the gathering’s leaders, a well-known conservative religious activist from my community, quoted in the story concerning the rally, and will comment on that here. Her statement is captured in this excerpt from the Roanoke Times account. I do not include her name:
[The activist], a campus minister at a local college, said that government has sought to push the church out of many of its traditional duties such as feeding the hungry and tending to the sick. The mandate, [the activist said], forces religious institutions to make a choice between violating long-standing principles and abandoning their mission.
I will concentrate here on the first part of this argument. First, it is difficult to contend the government has taken away a group’s, congregation’s or individual’s religious freedom as they are permitted to gather and pray and argue as they wish, and to protest the government’s actions on the basis of their understanding of those efforts. The rally itself would appear to call the claim of curtailment of conscience into question. Indeed, the event was well attended by local Catholic clergy, particularly whose bishops nationally have led the campaign against the Obama health provision. Second, as an empirical proposition, neither the federal government nor state governments have ever demanded that religious institutions cease providing assistance to the poor or hungry. Indeed, since the advent of neo-liberalism in the early 1980s, many Republican government leaders at all levels of governance have used church social activism of various sorts (including homeless shelters and soup kitchens) to argue for cutbacks in government support for services aimed at assisting the poor or afflicted. In consequence, far from pushing churches out of these activities, these leaders have often called on them to do still more. In short, if anything, many government leaders have called for more church social action, not less. It must also be said that Democratic leaders for their part have not called on churches to cease assisting the poor and hungry either. They have instead argued that the scale of need is so large as to demand public action in concert with faith-based organization activities, a point with which many church leaders of all faiths have often loudly and publicly agreed.
Third, since there is no empirical evidence for the proposition offered by this activist, it is worthwhile inquiring into its origins. To the extent these can be gleaned, they appear to be the product of a quasi-conspiratorial fear, rather than bearing any relationship to actual public policies or actions. They also appear to be unrelated to the debate concerning whether and how the insured should receive access to contraceptives. Instead, this individual has created a penumbra of angst and fear and ascribed it to government action that, in fact, has never occurred. And she is not alone in her views, and certainly was not so at the rally. While the concern expressed can certainly be tied to the rationale for the demonstration, it bears no relationship to reality and begs the question of where people who share this belief obtained such notions. And more, it raises the issue of why these sorts of claims are simply asserted in public argument without apparent reflection.
This person’s cast of mind represents an odd and unsettling turn in public argument and rhetoric. The activist featured in the news story asserted the existence of a situation that has never obtained and acted as if it had and the government (at whatever level) was culpable in actions it has never taken. In short, this was not an argument about specific steps government should or should not take, or a debate concerning ways that the poor might be assisted more effectively by charities and the public alike. It was instead, a contention that bore no relationship to government policy or action, but simply was asserted as fact. While this individual is surely free to believe whatever she wishes, it is troubling that citizens, and in this case, a perceived community leader, are gathering under a rubric so divorced from reality. And the fact that such is occurring in many places raises troubling questions about the warp and woof of mediated meanings in today’s democratic society, despite the many sources of information now available to Americans. It also raises the issue of how citizens, even well-educated ones, such as this activist, can come to believe in such claims and more, act on them as if they had actually occurred. It is difficult to debate matters in the public square when at least some of the principals involved conceive of their government a priori in so conspiratorial a fashion and ascribe motivations and actions to its leaders that have, in fact, never obtained. I do not pretend to be able to suggest a way out of this morass, but it represents a very sad turn.