It’s big news that Wheaton College, my former employer, has joined the Catholic University of America in filing suit in federal court against the HHS Mandate requiring (among others) religious institutions to violate their consciences by funding what we regard as grave, send-us-to-hell-for-crimes-against-God-and-humanity evils. (Forgive me the excessive dashes; I’ve been translating German recently.) The Presidents of the two institutions — Phil Ryken of Wheaton and John Garvey of CUA — have an op-ed on the move in the Wall Street Journal, while Christianity Today has an interview with Dr. Ryken here.
Ryken and Garvey point out that this is a threat not merely to quirky religious institutions run by fundie nutjobs but to American principles and indeed the Republic:
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” Justice Robert Jackson wrote in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), “it is that no official . . . can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” It is not just churches that have these religious rights, but all Americans who gather in voluntary association for distinctively religious purposes, such as Christian education.
The danger in ignoring Justice Jackson’s principle is not limited to institutions like Wheaton College and Catholic University. The real danger is to our republic. As Colson and Neuhaus observed in “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”: “[T]his constitutional order is composed not just of rules and procedures but is most essentially a moral experiment. . . . [W]e hold that only a virtuous people can be free and just, and that virtue is secured by religion. To propose that securing civil virtue is the purpose of religion is blasphemous. To deny that securing civil virtue is a benefit of religion is blindness.”
A government that fails to heed the cries of its religious institutions undermines the supports of civil virtue and puts in jeopardy our constitutional order.
Strong stuff. It also happens to be true. A couple further thoughts:
(1) Note in my title and opening paragraph I didn’t refer to the “contraceptive mandate.” The issue is much broader than contraception. The mandate concerns not only contraception but also abortifacient drugs that essentially cause the death of a fertilized egg — a unique person. Dr. Ryken points this out in his interview with Sarah Pulliam Bailey of CT:
When you say abortion-inducing drugs, what are specific drugs you’re concerned about?
The definition of “contraception” in the HHS mandate includes morning-after and week-after drugs, which Protestants and Roman Catholics both recognize as abortifacient drugs and not merely contraceptive drugs. Furthermore, the Secretary of Health and Human Services in some of her public comments has made it clear that these are drugs that prevent in some cases or in many cases the implantation of a fertilized egg. So even though the government is using a definition of contraception that we think is morally misleading, in terms of the science of what these drugs do, there’s little public disagreement about their effect. The only difference of opinion is about the moral implications of that effect.
When we refer to this as the “contraceptive mandate,” we lose the rhetorical edge and risk losing the war because (as is well known) most Americans think contraception is as American as Old Glory, apple pie, and cheating on your income tax (as the late Lewis Grizzard once rephrased the traditional triad). We’ve arrived at the endpoint of the Enlightenment project where most of us believe we should be able to do whatever we want to fulfill our desires so long as no one else gets hurt. And most Americans seem willing nowadays to force their opinions on others, whatever else they might say in conversation or on surveys.
But this is not just about condoms or chemical contraception. It’s about abortion. Abortion is the whole reason Wheaton College is suing. As Dr. Ryken makes clear in the interview, Wheaton College has no philosophical problem with contraception proper per se. Many, if not most, Americans, are seriously uncomfortable with abortion, even many who favor letting it remain legal. So let’s start speaking about the “abortion mandate.” I suppose “abortifacient mandate” would be better, as it’s more accurate, but “abortifacient” is a Big Word, so best not to use it. Perhaps “abortion drug mandate.” Three things Americans are generally uncomfortable with, all in one phrase.
(2) The Mandate mess reminds us that contraception and abortion are not two different things. They’re related. We often hear that increased contraception would reduce abortion. Hardly. While it’s true by definition that any singular successfully contracepted act of coitus cannot result in pregnancy, the contraceptive mentality in culture severed sex from procreation and made babies an often unwanted byproduct of pleasure, and that opens the door wide open to abortion. (In terms of jurisprudence, Griswold led straight to Roe and then Casey.) Both contraception and abortion reject babies as the natural, intended result of coitus. Indeed, 54% of women who have abortions were using contraception when they conceived.
(3) Given that contraception and abortion are related, and given the deleterious effects that contraception and abortion culture are having on us all in so many myriad ways, I’d ask my serious Protestant, evangelical, and Orthodox friends to reconsider their often all-too-easy acceptance of contraception. Until 1930, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox teaching rejected contraception. Serious Protestants and evangelicals and Orthodox should ask themselves why that changed. The answers, I think, have less to do with good theological reasoning in the realm of ethics and more with churches slipping into utilitarian and pragmatic modes of thinking as they surrendered the classical sources of revelation, namely Scripture and Tradition. (Obviously different bodies will conceive of their relationship in different ways.) There’s also the theological problem of overrealized eschatology, of immanentizing the eschaton, attempting to realize heaven on earth, which, again, is all you’ve got left when you surrender Scripture and Tradition. And now serious Christians of many stripes are faced with a real political menace brought on by our easy acceptance of contraceptive culture. (Practically speaking, this of course includes Catholics, both lay and ordained, who have not maintained or practiced the Church’s official teaching.) Here, then, is an opportunity for reflection and repentance.