A Church is not a Person

Patriot Notes

I've been thinking about all of the uproar over Obama's recent decision, and compromise, concerning birth control and the Roman Catholic Church.

The controversy takes me back to two central issues in the culture war—the issues of freedom and power.

The two are intimately connected, of course. The more power I have, the more freedom I have. And, on the other hand, the more power you have, when it's power over me, the less freedom I have.

The ancient, traditional, approach to power and to freedom—invented and perfected by our hunter gatherer ancestors—was to deny anyone power over anyone else.

If one person tried to order another around, his or her orders would be ignored.

If that person persisted anyway, he or she would find themselves ignored by the entire community, until they stopped.

If they resorted to force to compel obedience, they would find themselves fighting the whole community, and if they were really persistent they might find themselves exiled or dead.

One of the reasons this method of guaranteeing freedom to the individual worked so well is that our ancestors also practiced a simple form of socialism. If you were sick, you got taken care of—by the entire community. If you were hungry, you got fed.

The connection between caring for our own and the guarantee of freedom was simple and pragmatic: there was no room in the system for economic slavery. No one was beholden to any single other person for their daily bread, or for their future medical needs. No one could control others by withholding food or medicine or anything else, since no one had that power.

Our current society differs from traditional human values in many ways, even though the American emphasis on freedom has recovered much of what we lost to kings and state religions.

We allow the bounty of the earth to be hoarded by some, and dispensed to others in return for a version of slavery. (The phrase "wage slave" is a bit more than a metaphor.)

If the work I am being paid for (and provided with health insurance for) is work I find meaningful, then this is not much of a problem in and of itself.

But it does represent an imbalance of power, and that is a problem—especially when the one holding the power is not a person.

In spite of Citizens United, corporations are not people: they are organizations. And yet they often wield more power over more humans than any government or any mere human being.

What does all this have to do with contraception and the Roman Catholic Church?

One of the bishops recently argued that the issue was one of religious freedom: that the church ought to be free to impose its beliefs on its employees—even if the employees in question were not Catholics.

When I heard him say that, I heard an echo of the Citizens United decision. I also heard an echo of the conservative definition of freedom. Corporations are not people, nor is the Catholic church, or a Catholic school, or a Catholic hospital.

In a society where people have to work for an organization in order to feed themselves and their children, a world in which people have to depend upon their employer to provide healthcare for themselves and their families, freedom—if it has any relationship to the traditional human value at all—can only mean the freedom of the individual from coercion by those with power: even economic power.

Freedom of religion, if it is to be protected, must be the freedom of the individual to make his or her own religious decisions without interference from his or her employer—even if that employer is a religion.

The second we start allowing those with economic power to make it difficult or impossible for their employees to follow their own consciences, we can kiss the whole idea of religious freedom goodbye.

At least, that's what I think today.