By: Sarah Jaffe
Republican candidates have been traveling the country pledging to end Obama’s war.
Sounds great, except for one tiny problem—the war they’re railing about doesn’t exist. They’re not calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan or the abstract “war on terror.” The candidates claim that Obama and Democrats across the country are waging a “war on religion”– and, of course, they’re the “civilian casualties,” along with the rest of America’s white Christian majority.
Exploiting religious divides has long been one of the ways conservatives seek to win over working-class voters, whom they otherwise don’t seem to care about. Abortion, gay rights and religious education become wedge issues for politicians like Rick Santorum, who blend a kind of faux-populism with frighteningly reactionary sentiments about the rights of women and LGBT people.
That’s just it, too. The claims of “war on religion” seem to always come when a move by the administration, a court, or legislature has granted more rights and protections to those who are not straight, male and usually white. When white evangelicals and Catholics claim that Obama’s declaring a war on religion, they mean on their religion. They’re evoking the same xenophobia as the demands for the birth certificate, as the claims that Obama is a Muslim. The insinuation is that the president isn’t American, isn’t like them, and thus is to be feared, hated, or simply voted out of office.
We’ve collected five examples of the GOP and religious-right leaders claiming their rights are being infringed when the government tells them they can no longer use their beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against others.
1. Catholic employers complain about having to provide birth control coverage with health insurance.
Republican politicians and religious-right leaders—particularly the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, known previously for its willingness to tank healthcare reform over private abortion coverage that women could purchase with their own money—are claiming, incredibly, that the Obama administration’s ruling that birth control should be covered by health insurance without a co-pay infringes on their freedom of religion.
Santorum, a Catholic, pitched a fit over the contraception rule in Colorado on the campaign trail this week, calling Obama “hostile to people of faith, particularly Christians, and specifically Catholics.”
And Mitt Romney, whose church explicitly permits birth control, nevertheless had to get in on the fun, writing an op-ed for theWashington Examinerclaiming Obama is trying to “impose a secular vision on Americans who believe that they should not have their religious freedom taken away.”
The Catholic bishops fought Obama’s decision to provide birth control coverage at all, and then demanded an exemption that would have given religious institutions sweeping rights to deny coverage. As Amanda Marcotte noted at RH Reality Check:
“Sensibly, the Obama administration did not grant the exception, following federal tradition of protecting the religious freedom of individual employees over claims from employers that their rights trump those of employees. You can’t cut someone’s salary because they don’t share your religious belief, after all, so why should you be able to cut their benefits?”
Not only that, but NPR reported that many Catholic hospitals and universities already do offer contraceptive coverage as part of their health insurance. And a new poll shows that a majority of Americans — and a majority of Catholics – think Catholic hospitals and universities should indeed have to offer co-pay-free birth control coverage.
So how, exactly, is this a war on religion? If anything, it’s another symptom of the war on workers—employers claiming that they have the right not to provide the same coverage mandated for other employees, because of their personal beliefs. (Note that the Catholic bishops never speak out on behalf of workers’ rights, though the Pope has spoken out for economic justice issues many times. They’re only interested in defending the rights of the boss to impose his religious beliefs on his female employees.) The only way it becomes an attack on religion is when right-wingers lie about it.
So what is a mandate for birth control becomes, in the words of Congressman Jim Jordan, “free contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.”
There’d be nothing wrong with this if it were true—abortion is in fact a legal healthcare procedure in the United States. But the fact is that it’s not even close to true – it’s just another dangerous elision between contraception—which prevents pregnancy—and abortion, which terminates an existing pregnancy.
While most pro-choicers would like to see abortion covered by health insurance, that’s simply not the case and was a big enough point of contention in the fight over healthcare reform that the bill nearly went down. The fact that the right is continuing to lie about it simply shows that they know the American public isn’t actually on their side when they tell the truth.
2. Catholic Charities shut down adoption services rather than allow same-gender couples to adopt.
The bishops aren’t just mad about contraception, though.
In an NPR story about the “war on religion,” Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, CT, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, complained that Illinois-based Catholic Charities was “forced” to shut down its adoption services because it would otherwise have had to start placing orphaned children with same-gender couples.
“…[W]e do have a constitutional right not to be discriminated against because we’re following our own convictions,” he said.
Other people’s convictions—for instance, that no child should go homeless because of antiquated prejudices—don’t seem to hold the same weight for the bishops.
A pesky Illinois state law demands that couples joined under the state’s civil union law be considered just as valid as male-female couples married by a church—and that includes being able to adopt children. Catholic Charities wanted state money to fund its services, but didn’t want to obey the state’s non-discrimination law.
Of course, the same right-wingers who call for personal responsibility for struggling Americans don’t see anything wrong with government funding for religious organizations.
Just for the record—the Obama administration continues to fund faith-based groups, with $140 million from the stimulus bill alone making its way into the coffers of religious organizations.
3. Tony Perkins whines after Air Force apologizes for promoting an explicitly Christian charity.
Oh, Tony, Tony.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, says that Obama has “created an atmosphere that is hostile toward Christianity.”
How’s that, exactly? Well, Perkins told James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, that the Air Force Academy‘s apology for promoting Operation Christmas Child, an explicitly Christian ministry, on campus, was creating such an atmosphere.
Operation Christmas Child is not just any Christian ministry, though—it’s a subsidiary of Franklin (son of Billy) Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse. And Graham? His concern for religious liberty is pretty specific, and certainly doesn’t apply to Muslims. As Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches noted, Graham thinks the Muslim Brotherhood has also infiltrated the government. (The complaint that got the Air Force Academy to apologize was filed on behalf of 132 Academy personnel, including two Muslim families.)
Graham is also a notorious birther—and that gets to the heart of these charges that Obama is opposed to religion. As noted above, the claims that Obama doesn’t respect religion are deeply connected with the claims that he is a Muslim, or that he is not an American citizen.
So let’s get this straight. When the Air Force Academy, a government entity, respects the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and refuses to endorse an explicitly evangelical Christian charity, that’s a war on religion. But if the Air Force Academy supports the charity of a man who calls Islam “a very evil and wicked religion,” it’s…protecting religious freedom?
Sorry, Tony, Franklin, James. If you want to stand up for religious freedom, you have to stand up for everyone’s religious freedom. That means even those scary Muslims.
4. Justice Department defends a teacher who claims religious discrimination after being fired from a Lutheran school.
In a case before the Supreme Court, the Obama justice department took the side of a teacher who did double duty at a Lutheran school in Michigan, teaching secular subjects and also leading students in prayer and teaching religious courses. Cheryl Perich took a medical leave for an illness, and when she was better, the school declined to take her back. She sued, claiming discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Chicago Tribune explained what happened next:
“A federal district court rejected the claim. It said that because of her religious duties, she was covered by the long-recognized ‘ministerial exception’ — which says the government may not interfere in the relationship between churches and their clergy. An appeals court agreed on the exception, but said Perich wasn’t covered because she wasn’t a minister.”
The Supreme Court heard the case, with the Justice Department arguing that Perich should be treated like any other employee—but the whole court ruled against them, saying that protecting Perich’s job was tantamount to telling the church who was qualified to be a minister.
Once again, a position that religious folks are calling anti-religious is actually a pro-worker position. Perich wasn’t claiming that she had a right to teach Lutheran children the tenets of Judaism; she claimed that she was fired from a teaching job because she had been ill. Yet (Catholic) Justice Alito compared the school being required to give her job back to forcing Catholics to allow women to become priests, saying, “under the administration’s logic…there would be no obvious reason to prevent women from suing the Catholic church for sex discrimination because it bars them from the priesthood.”
While of course the government shouldn’t tell religious organizations who they can choose as ministers, the Justice Department hardly made that case (and indeed, has been willing, as shown above, to accommodate all sorts of religious organizations). Instead, it argued that a church, no less than Wal-Mart, doesn’t get to discriminate against a worker because of a disability or illness. Wrapping attacks on workers’ rights in religious clothing doesn’t make them OK, and it certainly doesn’t make Obama guilty of disrespecting religion.
5. Obama administration refuses to defend the Defense of Marriage Act.
No list of lies about religious faith and the Obama administration would be complete without the histrionics about marriage.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan (see a pattern here?), president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, claimed in September that Obama’s opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act, that Clinton-era compromise which, like most Clinton-era compromises, pleased and helped no one, would “precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions and to the detriment of both institutions.”
Who’s creating conflict here again?
The Defense of Marriage Act is a federal law that prevents states from having to recognize same-gender marriages granted in other states. It has very little to do with religion in the first place—because no law can force an institution of religion to carry out a marriage ceremony for any reason. Instead, the law applies to the legal institution of marriage, and means that a married couple in one state can lose all the rights and benefits of that marriage by crossing a state line.
Obama’s Justice Department declared last spring that they would no longer defend DOMA in court; over the summer, the department released a brief arguing that the law should be rejected as it is a kind of “sexual-orientation discrimination.”
The religious right doesn’t like that—but it has absolutely nothing to do with them. And just this week, the California Supreme Court agreed, noting in its ruling overturning that state’s Proposition 8 (the law banning same-gender marriage) that the law did not have “any effect on religious freedom or on parents’ rights to control their children’s education; it could not have been enacted to safeguard those liberties.”
Members of the religious right likes to claim that their opposition to gay marriage and adoption, to contraception and abortion, is a matter of deeply held moral conviction simply because it comes from religious teachings. And no one has tried to prevent them from clinging to their outdated beliefs.
However, it is also a moral belief that discrimination is wrong, that women have the right to control their own bodies and choose when they will or will not have children, that gay and lesbian couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples and should be able to be married and adopt children.
As John Fea, chair of the history department at Messiah College in Pennsylania, wrote, “Obama’s vision for America is just as moral as the vision espoused on the campaign trail by Rick Santorum. It may also be more Christian.”
Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.