Many Americans strongly believe that ours is a Christian nation, now and forever. One implication of this belief is that on matters of social policy, Christians’ views should be accorded a privileged position. Those who disagree are threats to religious freedom.
Evangelical Protestants continue to fume over the exclusion of prayer and Bible indoctrination from the public schools. The Roman Catholic hierarchy looks to the courts to strike down government-mandated birth control coverage in its institutions’ health care plans.
The first group claims that our religious freedom is under attack, and that reaffirming Christian norms as the basis of our laws is the only proper response. The second group acknowledges the religiously pluralistic character of American society. It restricts its polemic to demanding the freedom to express its own religious understanding in its own way.
It has long seemed to me that evangelical Protestants have a point regarding prayer and the Bible in the public schools. Declaring that required prayer violates the non-establishment clause in the First Amendment, the Supreme Court went on to encourage in very strong terms the study of religions in the schools, Christianity included. What has happened is that prayer is “out” everywhere, but serious religious study is “in” almost nowhere.
The current birth control practices of American Catholics have for all practical purposes rendered official church teachings on the subject moot. Nevertheless, their leaders are raising an important issue regarding their freedom to guide Catholic institutions toward conformity with Catholic norms, birth control included.
Infringement upon First Amendment guarantees are justifiable only when there is a demonstrably sufficient “compelling interest” on the part of the federal government to consider doing so. This is a good thing. Catholic leaders have the right to call the government to account over infringing the right of their institutions not to have birth control measures — or abortions — covered by any health insurance providers with whom they may be doing business.
But calling the government to account on any matter of religious freedom is a serious matter. Along with it should come reaffirmation of a crucial responsibility of government: to ensure that the religious beliefs of some will not become the coerced standard for the beliefs and practices of all. Evangelical Protestants and Catholic leaders must come to terms with this First Amendment principle, just as everyone else in our society must.