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Updated May 30, 2012, 6:34 p.m. ET
Henninger: Church Is Still Not State
Catholics are being told to substitute state belief for their religious belief.
How ironic it will be if Catholic voters, about 27% of the electorate, put the first Mormon in the White House some 50 years after John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president. More telling, though, about the current state of the American mind will be the fact that after more than a thousand days and events in Barack Obama's presidency, the reason for this result will be an unexpected reaffirmation of an American principle older than the country's first presidential election: the free exercise of religion.
Also telling about the current American mind is that the Democratic progressives who inhabit the administration either didn't see this coming or, more likely, thought that the idea of free religious exercise no longer counted for much among American Catholics in today's political calculus.
Surely someone inside the administration, perhaps Joe Biden (Archmere Catholic high school, '61), brought this matter up during the comment period preceding the January 20 statement by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that religious institutions, primarily hospitals, would be required to extend insurance coverage to the widest definition of birth-control treatments. The Catholic bishops conference urged the Obama administration not to push them inside this mandate, citing religious belief as what one could call their conscientious objection to it.
The backlash among Catholics to the HHS order, across the political spectrum, was an astonishing thing to witness. One anecdote sticks with me from the first days. A friend in Ohio told of talking to a diocesan priest of no apparent political persuasion who said, "I hope these bishops are prepared to go to jail over this."
Go to jail? What's going on here?
St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Adams, Mass.
Some writers of late have said the initial crack back by Catholics overstates the political danger to the president. They've argued that the "Catholic vote" is a myth, that Catholics have become socially diverse and the direction of their votes is unpredictable. In these times, who could doubt it?
Some things don't change, though, and among them is an American antipathy to being pushed too far. Americans are a tolerant people, but past some point they push back. With the HHS mandate upon them, a lot of Catholic voters are thinking resistance. It's an old American tradition.
The Catholic lawsuits filed against the HHS mandate are based in the Constitution's Free Exercise Clause. That's the legal issue. But the reason so much hell broke loose after the Obama administration's decision is that it runs afoul of the Constitution's Establishment Clause against creating a state religion. The issue here isn't the parsings of constitutional law but the American religious experience that led to the Establishment Clause.
In pre-Revolution America, the believers who fled persecution in Europe often tried to make their religion official in the colonies. Virginia established the Church of England. Less appreciated but relevant now is that all such efforts at establishment in the colonies collapsed, not just because the Constitution in time forbade it but because the early Americans wouldn't accept being told to toe an official line of religious belief.
Wonder Land columnist Dan Henninger says Catholics are being told to substitute state belief for their religious belief.
Along with their intensity of religious belief, these earliest Americans had a habit of ornery independence. The history of religion in America is a story of pushed-around people who, rather than consent, divided into schismatic movements and breakaway sects, often literally heading into the wilderness. One of the most successful such groups stopped their traipsing in Utah. They have now produced a candidate for the presidency.
Suddenly amid this hallowed tradition, we get Barack Obama and Kathleen Sebelius (Trinity College, '70) claiming with the zeal of secular fanatics that these priests, nuns, their hospitals and the people who work in them will find a way to pay for and permit sterilizations and abortifacients. Catholics can believe what they want inside their churches, but in public they too must show belief in reproductive rights as defined in law by the state. Welcome to 3rd-century Rome.
The resisting Catholic bishops, say the administration and its factions, are "out of step" with the current American consensus on women's reproductive rights. Possibly so, but official Catholic doctrine and the HHS mandate are in opposition.
The Obama administration is effectively saying that all the practices and beliefs embedded in the Obama health-care law are established in America and consent is required, no matter what some religion purports to believe. It is this attempt to displace religious belief with an alternative belief system that goes against the American grain and has Catholics up in arms.
Perhaps the Catholic-myth people are right that most Catholics are OK now with abortifacients. And maybe the pundits dripping ridicule and bile on New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan have got the modern American Catholic pegged right. I doubt it. Not yet.
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A version of this article appeared May 31, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Church Is Still Not State.