They’re Right. The Debate Really is About Religion.

About 30 miles from where I live, I drove past a sign informing me there’s a Hobby Lobby coming to my neighborhood soon. And just when I was getting ready to put it in the back of my mind, now that the initial fury has died down. I can do that, of course, because it doesn’t directly affect me. (You can’t always tell that someone is directly affected by a case just because they have strong views on it, but a sure fire way to tell someone has no interest is the comment, “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.”) So I’ve been thinking more about the question of religious influence this week.

I’ve also been reading a book called How Good People Make Tough Choices for potential use in the classroom. In one section the author, Rushworth Kidder, uses the public debate over abortion to make the case that each side is closer to the other than it thinks. He contends that the debate here, as in many other cases, is not really over values but over definitions, particularly over the question of when life begins. He asks us to imagine a debate between articulate and thoughtful folks on either extreme of the debate. Certainly they both value life. Neither side supports murder, both value the concept of freedom of choice, both value children, and neither side thinks disposing of unwanted children is an acceptable societal practice. Both also value women and their choice, at least as a matter of principle. Both think that law should be followed and unjust laws should be changed. Most on both sides, he thinks, probably even agree that religion does and should play a role.

As mentioned, this all points to the idea that this debate is not really over values. Life for one side begins at conception, which is fixed at some (early) indeterminate point, and for the other at gestation, which is also fixed at a (later) indeterminate point. The debate is also unlikely to be decide on those grounds because of the indeterminacy of the evidence, just as with our difficulty of deciding exactly when someone is dead.

He almost won me over. But then he continues, “if the pro-life side were suddenly convinced that life had not yet begun by this or that week, they would have no more difficulty allowing the woman an abortion at that time than they would in letting her decide to clip her nails, since they feel strongly about individual choice” (98). Kidder is absolutely right about the notion that there is much more common ground among all parties than is typically granted in the media.  And he is also right that if we grant pro-life advocates were truly convinced—hypothetically, since he’s not advocating one side or the other—then they would have no issue with terminating pregnancy at that stage. The likelihood against that happening, however, is astonishingly high.

The issue that Hobby Lobby is the latest iteration of is not really about abortion, or women’s rights, but religion. I have to agree with advocates of “religious freedom” on this point, and the debate would certainly be more focused if all parties focused on religion as the beginning and end of the debate. Maybe initially it was about the actual content of the debate, but that has long since ceased to be the case.

Here’s where this begins to apply to Hobby Lobby. It is increasingly clear that many of the drugs the owners of Hobby Lobby disagree with do not actually cause abortions, and thereby do not terminate life, but that has not, as of yet, changed many minds on the side of the defense. (Lest one thinks the weight of the evidence only needs to settle in a little more, one only needs to think of human impact on the global climate, or evolution, about which there is overwhelming evidence, and yet disagreement falling uncoincidentally along similar lines.) Evidence is not a clear determinant of the case.

Let us just say however, that sufficient and justifiable ambiguity remains for the owners of Hobby Lobby not to change their minds yet. And let us say that we want to protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion as well as their sex, race, class, body type, gender, ability, etc. And let us say that we want to allow as much latitude as possible to exercise freedom within those identity categories or others. These are all good things. How do we maneuver through this ethically?

The concept of discrimination may provide a way forward. What makes discrimination problematic, what makes it something that we societally seek protection from, is that it is action based upon an irrational judgment (prejudice); in other words, a judgement that is irrelevant to the case at hand. When this discrimination is sustained, it becomes institutionalized as oppression, and that oppression is masked as cultural norms, nature, “the way of things,” and as such hides its arbitrary heart. But we have gradually seen through (although certainly not eliminated) such legitimacy in the past and begun to expose it for the façade it is.

So if you want, don’t call it discrimination. Call it irrational judgment. Either way, it results in an ethical failure. For this reason we should not limit the access to guns on the basis of race. We also should not limit the access to cultural and artistic enrichment on the basis of socio-economic class. We should not limit the access to land to build a church (or a mosque) on the basis of religion. And we also should not limit access to contraceptives or birth control on the basis of sex. All of these forms of discrimination have to an extent been institutionalized based upon arbitrary beliefs, and their insidiousness lies in their power to coerce the implausible scenario they portray into existence.

What Kidder fails to recognize, then, is the uniqueness of religion in its ability not just to supplement, but to replace ethics. Earlier he notes, “Worship and faith, combined with charity and mercy, are powerful contributors to the health and well-being of our communities.” This has indeed been true, but the opposite is also true, that religion is a powerful contributor to the sickness and destruction of well-being of communties. If and when this is combined with the notion that there are millions of folks that somehow have similar human values irrespective of religion, one is more inclined to think that ethics and religion are not the same, and that there are broader, more inclusive, bases upon which to judge and protect the individuals in our communities. Although we protect religious freedom, although we understand the depth of its historical tradition and its far-reaching influence in America, we cannot allow religion—again, in an irrational relation to the facts at hand—to be used as a means to circumscribe the rights of certain individuals, against their will, when we have established them as rights of citizenship.

To be clear, the point is not to reverse some dangerous trend toward increasing religious discrimination in America, at least in the long view. Discrimination based on religious (Protestant Christian) belief has always been a part of the American heritage. Neither is the point to eliminate religion of any sort from society as a whole, at least by force. That too would be immoral. The point is to continue progressing toward limiting religious privilege in the public sphere. One way to do that is to make clear the distinction between religion and moral/ethical value.

There can be broad overlaps between ethics and religion, but they are not synonymous. In response to Socrates’ question to Euthyphro, “It is loved by the gods because it is pious,” and not the other way around. Where that leaves ethics and how ethics can be valuable if not rooted in the supernatural is a question that keeps many holding to a causal connection between the two, usually because it is how they were first encountered. That there is no necessary connection between religion and ethics is important because it removes the justification of a distinctive religious identity to trump or receive preferential treatment, or exceptions, over any other social identity in the public sphere.

The wild card in this scenario is Christians who disagree with the position of Hobby Lobby’s ownership. These Christians are key stakeholders in the drive to separate “good” religion from “conservative” religion in order to protect their beliefs. Insofar as religion and state remain separate, this position may be defensible. When the line becomes blurred, though, the attempt to dismiss the issue as a case of bad religion or about something else besides religion obscures bigger problems, including the attempt to conflate ethics and religion and the irrational basis of judgment, at least in this case. What is one to do, who both identifies as Christian and believes that corporations should not be able to limit the access of their employees to contraception and birth control on religious grounds? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I’m convinced that it is these folks who will increasingly be crucial in debates over religion in America and globally.