Commentary Magazine

It’s All About the First Freedom

To the Editor:

It is said that you can learn a lot from how a question is asked. In his thoughtful article, “When Is Religion Bad Religion?” [September], Wilfred M. McClay focuses on how, when, and why religions fail to add to the quality of life in the public square. He asserts that the major religions in the United States have lost their institutional stature and credibility and no longer contribute meaningfully to the dialogue about the good life in America. He excoriates the decision of the Obama administration to require Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraception and all reproductive care for their employees. I think his argument fails on two grounds.

First, the government requirement to provide insurance coverage for services that the Catholic Church disapproves of does not infringe on their ability to forcefully advocate for their views on health-related issues. Clergy can still enter into the public discourse on issues such as abortion, contraception, sexual mores, and end-of-life care. As an Orthodox Jew, I am grateful prominent rabbis and teachers can participate in this conversation and give voice to their convictions on these topics. However, this does not extend to a right to impose specific doctrines and behaviors.

In the American system, religious institutions cannot compel private actions by their employees and such decisions must be left to the individual. The Enlightenment sought to alleviate precisely this threat of coercive actions by organized religions. While the Founders were religious men, they concluded that society is better served by allowing complete religious freedom, to be observant or to drop out, rather than mandate religious practices.

Second, I think Mr. McClay makes light of the gain to society as a whole if people are encouraged to demonstrate mutual respect and live peaceably with one another. Religion has much to offer in this regard, even if it is limited in its capacity to impose specific doctrines on individuals. It can help define what it means to be a good citizen in a democratic, pluralistic society such as the United States, where there is a premium on individual liberty and freedom of thought. Spinoza had it right in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, when he claimed that the communal religious spirit will have added much to the quality of life of the society if it fosters love of one’s neighbor and justice for all.

Howard Trachtman
New Rochelle, New York 


Wilfred M. McClay writes:

I am grateful to Howard Trachtman for his thoughtful letter, and I agree with much of what he says about the beneficent effects of religion in American life, and the importance of mutual respect in a pluralistic society. But I think he misses the crucial point at issue in the controversy over the Health and Human Services mandate. 

In the first place, there is no question here of inhibiting free speech. No one is claiming that the Catholic Church is being proscribed from vigorously expressing its positions in the public square. Nor is the church, in objecting so strenuously to the HHS mandate, seeking to impose its doctrines regarding contraception on the general population. Since I am not a Catholic myself, and I disagree with the church’s teaching regarding contraception, I would be putting myself in a very odd position if I were advocating that the church be allowed to do this.

Nor is the church seeking the right to use the law to impose its doctrines on its own members, or, as Mr. Trachtman puts it, “to compel private actions by their employees.” On the contrary. In fact, the great irony here is that while under the status quo ante the employees of these organizations could not be compelled to do anything, the employer (which is to say, the church),  under the HHS mandate, is being compelled to do something. It is being compelled, not asked, to pay for “private actions” by its employees that clearly violate its foundational teachings. It is being compelled, not asked, to betray itself. If this is not a blow against religious liberty, I don’t know what would be. 

The heart of the issue, then, is whether the coercive power of the U.S. government can legitimately be used to compel the church and its ancillary organizations to pay for the administration of medical procedures that the church does not regard as “health care” and teaches to be morally wrong. It is not a dispute about what Catholics, or employees of Catholic organizations, may be permitted to do in their private lives. I hope Mr. Trachtman can see the difference, and understand why this matter has become an issue of the first importance not only for Catholics, but for all Americans who value the principle of religious liberty, and who wish to uphold the principle of mutual respect in a pluralistic society. One can disagree with the Catholic view of contraception and yet insist that the government respect it. This is precisely what is required by our commitment to the free exercise of religion. 

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