By Frederick Clarkson | September 2012
There was a time when future Christian Right leaders Tim and Beverly LaHaye were the Southern Baptist couple best known for writing Christian sex manuals for married couples under such titles as The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love, first published in 1976. They were also advocates for birth control, including the Pill. It was a time when even the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) accepted abortion under certain circumstances.
Times have certainly changed, as conservative evangelicals have increasingly taken on views more like the Catholic bishops than those of traditional Baptists on abortion, birth control and the separation of church and state. And this political season, the views of theocratic factions are on striking display, providing an important backdrop to the debates about religious freedom and birth control in federal policy.
Let’s begin our story in 2003, when journalist Cynthia Cooper approached Wendy Wright, then a spokesperson for the Christian Right group Concerned Women for America (CWA), which was founded by Mrs. LaHaye. The occasion was an FDA hearing about emergency contraception (EC), which is a high-dose version of the Pill. The journalist asked Wright about the discrepancy between her opposition to EC and the views of CWA’s founder, since Mrs. LaHaye had always supported birth control pills. Wright “turned on her heel,” Cooper reported, “and walked away without answering.”
This story epitomizes an important trend in our national conversation: small leadership groups professing to speak for many millions on behalf of certain religious institutions regarding matters of birth control and public policy, when they actually speak for very few beyond themselves.
The framers of the Constitution would probably be alternately astonished and alarmed by the role religion has taken in politics in recent years—this year’s presidential contest in particular. The hearty mix of Baptists, Catholics and Mormons in the 2012 Republican primaries suggests that we have come a vast distance as a society that embraces religious pluralism. But just below the surface lies a dark stew of religious bigotry and contempt for the principle of religious pluralism itself. These currents will play a role as the US sorts through important constitutional issues regarding individual conscience rights.
When Baptists Go Catholic
Historically, conservative Baptists have considered the Roman Catholic church to be problematic at best. And certainly the Catholic church has given the Baptists plenty of reason to be concerned about its hostility to the principles of separation of church and state in the US. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy specifically addressed Protestant concerns that he would be an agent of the papacy in his famous 1960 campaign address to the Houston Ministerial Association. And while Kennedy’s clear commitment to the principles of pluralism and separation made Catholic policymakers seem less toxic to Baptists and many others in subsequent years, greater public tolerance of Catholicism does not necessarily translate into theological accommodation.
Rev. Dr. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, used an appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live in 2000 to sharply distinguish his view of Christian orthodoxy from Catholicism. “As an evangelical,” Mohler declared, “I believe the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel. I believe the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.” Strong stuff—but not as strong as the view of Bob Jones University at the time, which held to the view that Catholicism is a cult.
Thus, conservative Catholic politicians who have not made efforts to distinguish their public role from their private faith, as Kennedy did, have not usually been able to count on readily accessible public approval. Nevertheless, the resolute conservative Catholicism of Rick Santorum has made him a hero to certain like-minded Catholics: “To us, he’s the preeminent Catholic politician in America,” Austin Ruse, president of the antichoice Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), told the National Catholic Reporter in a 2005 profile. “The ‘us’ Ruse refers to,” the newspaper reported, “are conservative Catholics, loyal to the magisterium, to this pope and his predecessor.”
Rick Santorum proved to have unexpected crossover appeal. Christian Right leaders, mostly evangelicals, endorsed Santorum over Baptist-to-Catholic convert Newt Gingrich, Baptist Herman Cain, Baptist Ron Paul and Mormon Mitt Romney. (Texas Governor Rick Perry, an evangelical Methodist, would probably have been their choice if his campaign had not already imploded.) Additionally, that the top choices in most of the GOP primaries were Catholics and a Mormon must have surprised more than a few conservative Protestants.
Santorum went to great lengths to go through the right political motions to please the evangelical wing of the Religious Right before his candidacy ultimately faltered. But when speaking only to Catholic audiences he has said things that many would find troubling—Catholics and non-Catholics alike. For example, he said in 2008 that mainline Protestantism had come under the sway of “the Father of Lies,” “is in shambles” and “is gone from the world of Christianity.” And earlier this year, he said that JFK’s historic speech on the separation of church and state made him “want to throw up.”
Mohler, who apparently has come some distance since his appearance on Larry King, said that “Santorum is a Catholic who often sounds, perhaps by intention, like an evangelical. In any event, his positions on moral issues like marriage and his use of theological language are recognizable to evangelicals. In terms of the political context, we share a common space.”
Are Mormons the New Catholics?
Another feature of this political season is the awkward effort to reconcile the existing anti-Mormonism among conservative evangelicals with the presidential candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney. Mainstream polling and conventional wisdom indicate that conservative evangelicals, when faced with the decision, will ultimately choose Romney over President Barack Obama. Maybe so. But such views may underappreciate how widespread is the view that Mormons are not Christians, and how many have been schooled that Mormonism is a dangerous heresy and may, as a result, be unable to bring themselves to vote for a Mormon.
Researcher Rachel Tabachnick, who was raised as a conservative Southern Baptist but converted to Judaism, believes that many Southern Baptists will not be able to vote for Romney. She points to books and articles, currently available on the SBC’s website for its LifeWay publishing empire and bookstore chain, suggesting that this mistrust of Mormonism remains unchanged for many. Indeed, a LifeWay Research poll of 1,000 American Protestant pastors last fall found that 75 percent of respondents did not consider Mormons to be Christians. Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, explained, “A person can respect a religious group and even appreciate their commitment to traditional moral values without equating their beliefs with Christian orthodoxy.” They can, but whether they will is another question.
Tabachnick adds that Christian Right leaders know that they face an uphill battle. She points to a recent edition of Rev. James Robison’s television show, in which he and Christian Nationalist advocate David Barton kept reminding viewers that conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck is a Mormon, as if to help them find the idea of Mormonism more acceptable.
But even Beck may not be able assuage the concerns of those schooled in conservative Baptist orthodoxy. Divisions on the matter of Mormonism have been very public in recent years. In 2010, Richard Land, the political point man in the SBC, stated that Mormonism is the “fourth Abrahamic faith,” and that he intended to work with Beck on a campaign of national “renewal.” But in a widely discussed commentary, Al Mohler’s seminary colleague Russell Moore called this rapprochement with the Mormon faith a “scandal.” For his own part, Mohler tweeted Moore’s commentary, as if to signal agreement.
It is worth noting that other volatile, religiously informed views are equally as widespread and not hard to find in the political world. On the LifeWay books website, for example, one of the featured books played a role in one of the biggest religio-political blow-ups of the last election: Jerusalem Countdown, the 2006 book by Texas televangelist Rev. John Hagee. Republican candidate John McCain had sought and received Hagee’s endorsement, but was compelled to renounce it in light of the views Hagee expressed in the book and in his sermons—that God sent Hitler to hunt down the Jews as a sign that they should go to Israel to fulfill Biblical prophesy.
What is remarkable in all of these shifting alliances is that, while many religious conservatives may share substantial agreement on such matters as abortion, LGBT rights and separation of church and state, they cannot necessarily paper over other profound differences by clinging to these relatively narrow areas of agreement. Indeed, for many, there is nothing more serious than the definition of Christianity (and other religions) and who gets to decide what that definition is. Wars have been fought over less. The depth of these divisions should give pause to those who would erode the wall of separation in the name of religious freedom, as we have seen recently with the conservative religious backlash against such policies as the new federal requirement that employer-provided insurance plans include no-cost birth control coverage, including many religious employers.
When the Catholic hierarchy called the policy a violation of the entire church’s religious freedom, the Obama administration made an effort to compromise by shifting the cost burden for certain religious institutions to insurance providers, but not exempting church-affiliated employers such as universities and hospitals. This new plan has been met with hostility by the US bishops, who view a wide range of institutions as an integral part of the church itself, and want no part in the provision of reproductive healthcare such as contraception.
This very public argument has highlighted the definition of “ministry,” which was the focus of a recent landmark Supreme Court case. The unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was an unambiguous exemption of churches from employment and civil rights laws. Briefly, at issue was the firing of a teacher by a Lutheran church school over a disability. The church claimed that the teacher served in a capacity of ministry, and that the government had no right to intervene in its employment decisions. The court agreed: “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts on behalf of the entire court. “By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”
The court also opted not to “adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.” That may have been wise, but the question of what qualifies as a ministry of a religious institution, and the degree of its exemption from laws and constitutional protections, may well be one of the crucial issues of our time. Hosanna-Tabor was fairly easy for the court, because it involved a Lutheran Church and the teacher actually led students in prayer as part of her job, although she insisted it was a very small part. But when the case involves non-Christian groups, or Christian groups with an expansive definition of ministry, such a scenario may force the court to be clearer.
Eternity in an Hour, or less
“The issue before us,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts, “is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch. The amount of time an employee spends on particular activities is relevant in assessing that employee’s status, but that factor cannot be considered in isolation, without regard to the nature of the religious functions performed.”
The court granted the church in question considerable latitude to define its ministry, allowing even small amounts of time spent on religious functions by a school teacher to be the controlling factor in the relationship between the individual, the employer and federal civil rights laws.
But we can see the unresolved public policy and church-state implications of ministry creeping into the birth control debate. As the Catholic church continues to clamp down on such institutions as hospitals and universities, compelling conformity with doctrine in defiance of the rules for larger society, the extent to which state and federal government can enforce the law is up for question, especially as the number of personnel covered under the definition of ministry grows. Indeed, some of the more theocratic elements of the Religious Right have expansive definitions of ministry, and the Hosanna-Tabor case will likely give rise to more tug-of-war over where the reach of religious institutions end, and the rights of individuals begin.
Frederick Clarkson is an independent author and journalist. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, and most recently, editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America.
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