Bill Murchison

What a joy to find the New York Times editorial page staff on duty whenever a tough moral question arises, such as, "Can the U.S. government require business owners claiming religious liberty privileges to fund contraceptive care for employees?"

Sure, natch, you bet, returns the Times, doubtless to the relief of the U.S. Supreme Court, which takes up the question formally this week in yet another suit stemming from Obamacare. Owners who "personally disapprove of certain contraceptives ... are wrong," asserts the Times, "and the Supreme Court's task is to issue a decisive ruling saying so. The real threat to religious liberty comes from the owners trying to impose their religious beliefs on thousands of employees." Get those employers and their stale convictions outta here!

Because, look -- and one does need to look, though the Times omits the point from formal consideration -- America just isn't the kind of country anymore where religious convictions hold much water in the establishment and maintenance of ideals.

The U.S. today is in fact a pretty secular outfit, the Times all but whispers behind its hand; a place fairly well, and rightly, denuded of arguable notions stemming from some kind of "faith" consensus, be it ever so ancient.

Mumble your prayers if you like, according to this view of things; just don't get to thinking that beliefs formed outside the civic sphere have relevance to civic purposes. Dearly does the Times hope the high court will dismantle the pulpit from which the owners of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. claim legal standing for non-secular ideas.

There is a sense in which the government's, and the Times', counter-claim gee-haws with reality. Religion? We've got lots of that around here. What if the Quakers tried to put the military out of business? Until recent years, we sidestepped such questions by working out accommodations that honored religious thinking without impeaching certain public necessities. That was when religion was seen as a different kind of necessity: reflecting truth and reality, shaping conscience, giving form to public institutions. Such as marriage.

Such as marriage. Ah, yes. Recent court decisions on same-sex unions tend to push away religious understandings of marriage -- universal as they have been -- from consideration of what marriage ought to be. On the federal courts' current logic, marriage ought to be whatever its participants want it to be -- never mind ancient teachings (which we've Gotten Past, right?) on the union of man and woman and the attendant duties of procreation and child rearing.

Sex is the realm in which the secular spirit, seeking satisfaction, collides hardest and most often with religion. Religion, with both eyes on some divine personage no telescope has ever revealed, lays down understandings, formulates rules it commends in one form or another to everyone. Secularism says in response, hey, you can't talk to me like that! I'll call the government in!

The government duly comes in, with guarantees, formulated to suit the occasion, of the American right to do pretty much what an American desires to do with his body. Or hers. The secular understanding of what you ought to be allowed to do pretty well trumps the religious understanding -- as old as civilization itself -- that there are certain things you ought to want to do, and other things you ought not to want to do. All you have to prove in federal court these days, seemingly, is that you reject someone's attempt to regulate your instincts out of deference to some old book or religious code.

The religious understanding that the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga companies advance before the Supreme Court is pretty much -- sad to say -- the understanding to which courts these days display cool indifference. Maybe particular birth control devices, as alleged, do cause abortion. So what? That's a religious scruple the Supreme Court generally shoves aside in behalf of the secular claim that, hey, it's my body we're talking about! Which it isn't: not when a second body figures prominently in the case. But that's Religion, right? We don't do that stuff around here much anymore.


Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
 
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