From Kennedy to Hobby Lobby: the politicization of religion in America

JFKWhen John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he had to overcome religious bigotry and prejudice towards Catholics. There are those who then, and even still today, view Catholicism as a “false religion” and Catholics as “papists” who do the bidding of the Pope in Rome. Remember televangelist John Hagee’s remarks in 2008? Hagee to apologize to Catholics – – POLITICO.com.

To confront this concern about his religion, John Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960. John F Kennedy speech – I Believe in an America Where the the Separation of Church and State is Absolute’:

[B]ecause I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured–perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again–not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me–but what kind of America I believe in.

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew–or a Quaker–or a Unitarian–or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. [See Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786), the forerunner of the First Amendment protections for religious freedom]. Today I may be the victim–but tomorrow it may be you–until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end–where all men and all churches are treated as equal–where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice–where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind–and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

That is the kind of America in which I believe.

John Kennedy’s brilliant restatement of American idealism fell on deaf ears. There were those who were working even then to use religion to gain political power and to impose their religious beliefs on their fellow Americans. They eventually settled upon women’s reproduction as the basis for their political movement.

Jamelle Bouie wrote at Slate earlier this year, Fifty Years Ago American Evangelicals Didn’t Care : Conservative evangelicals didn’t always care much about abortion or contraception. The strange story of how they came to be obsessed with them:

In his book Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics, Jonathan Dudley notes that most evangelicals held far more liberal views at the time. “God does not regard the fetus as a soul no matter how far gestation has progressed,” wrote professor Bruce Waltke of Dallas Theological Seminary in a 1968 issue of Christianity Today on contraception and abortion, edited by Harold Lindsell, a then-famous champion of biblical “inerrancy.” His argument rested on the Hebrew Bible, “[A]ccording to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”

This position was reaffirmed at a symposium sponsored by Christianity Today and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, where participants agreed to disagree over the “sinfulness” of an “induced abortion,” but agreed about “the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances,” namely, rape and incest. The document produced by the conference, “A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction,” said, “The prevention of conception is not in itself forbidden or sinful providing the reasons for it are in harmony with the total revelation of God for married life” and that the “method of preventing pregnancy is not so much a religious as a scientific and medical question to be determined in consultation with one’s physician.”

Three years after the symposium, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention endorsed this view, with a call for “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

By 1982, however, the SBC—along with most American evangelicals—had switched gears entirely. During that year’s convention, delegates held that “human life begins at conception” and that they would work for “appropriate” legislation or a constitutional amendment to “prohibit abortions except to save the physical life of the mother.”

What happened to cause this sea change in attitudes toward fetal life and abortion among evangelicals? In short, politics, and in particular, the successful coalition-building of Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and other Christian conservatives in the wake of Roe v. Wade. Conservative Catholics were quick to mobilize against the court’s ruling, but many Protestant evangelicals were relatively apathetic. At that point, “culture war” issues such as abortion, feminism, and homosexuality weren’t on their radar (hence Jimmy Carter’s successful appeal to them in the 1976 presidential election).

It took the organizational might of Falwell and his “Moral Majority”—as well as evangelical anti-abortion figures such as Francis Schaeffer—to galvanize evangelicals around other “culture war” issues such as feminism, homosexuality, and school prayer. This in turn led to alliances with largely Catholic organizations like the National Right to Life Committee.

Belief tends to follow behavior, and working in political alliance with Catholics—a significant shift from earlier periods of evangelical political activism—led conservative evangelicals to adopt “pro-life” positions on abortion. Likewise, there was a shift in evangelical media—via books, magazines, radio, and television—toward anti-abortion beliefs. In 1980 Falwell declared, “The Bible clearly states life begins at conception.” Four years later, notes Dudley, InterVarsity Press—an evangelical imprint—was forced to withdraw a book that restated the earlier consensus around abortion.

Which brings us full circle to today. The five conservative activist justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are all Catholics (there are six Catholics on the Court: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Sonja Sotomayor). The five conservative activist justices clearly reject John Kennedy’s brilliant restatement of American idealism to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. The five conservative activist justices adhere to the politicized religion of the Religious Right, which is the foundation of the modern conservative movement.

Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Hobby Lobby allows for one’s subjective religious beliefs, of which the court does not enquire into the validity of whether it is a deeply held religious belief or not, to “opt out” of objective laws of general application to the public. The Court is inviting the very sectarian divisions that the original American colonists fled Europe to escape, and for which the First Amendment erected a wall of separation between church and state to prevent it from occurring in U.S. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists (January 1, 1802).

Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times echoes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s warning in her dissent in Hobby Lobby. Danger sign: The Supreme Court has already expanded Hobby Lobby decision:

The Supreme Court wasted no time in delivering a message to anyone who thought its Hobby Lobby ruling was limited to religious objections to coverage of purported abortion methods: You’re wrong.

The day after handing down the Hobby Lobby decision on Monday, the court issued orders pertaining to six pending cases in which employers claimed religious objections to all contraceptive services required under the Affordable Care Act. The court either ordered appeals courts to reconsider their rejection of the employers’ claims in light of the Hobby Lobby decision, or let stand lower courts’ endorsement of those claims.

In at least one of those cases, the sincerity of the employer’s religious objections is open to question. That shows why allowing a broad “religious” exemption from a federal law can be atrociously bad policy. More on that in a moment.

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The most interesting case, however, was brought by Eden Foods, a Michigan “natural foods” firm. Its Catholic owner, Michael Potter, claimed in his lawsuit that “participating in, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise supporting contraception, abortion, and abortifacients” offends his “deeply held religious beliefs.”

The appeals court that rejected his motion for an injunction against the mandate was skeptical. Potter’s real position, it suggested, resembled more “a laissez-faire, anti-government screed.” The evidence came from an interview Potter gave last year to Irin Carmon of Salon, in which he stated:

I don’t care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel’s or birth control. What gives them the right to tell me that I have to do that? That’s my issue, that’s what I object to, and that’s the beginning and end of the story.”

This hint that Potter had merely swaddled an anti-government rant within a “religious” blanket illustrates the main problem with Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Hobby Lobby: it takes claims of religious scruples for granted.

But how are government agencies or the courts to know when claims of religious piety are just pretexts for some other viewpoint, such as libertarianism or misogyny?

There’s no evidence in the record of Tuesday’s cases that the lower courts conducted any inquiry into the sincerity of the business owners’ religious claims or beliefs. Alito’s majority opinion Monday certainly didn’t offer any guidelines for validating what he established as a qualification for exemption from the ACA mandate.

Allowing exemptions to a federal law based on “unchallenged” and “unchallengeable” claims of subjective belief is the antithesis of secular law. That may be why religious exemptions have been handed out very carefully, until now.

The minimal rule should be, if you want one, prove you deserve it. In the past, courts have been loath to conduct such inquiries, because they can lead down a bottomless, subjective rabbit hole. But the Supreme Court has now turned claims of subjective belief into an enormous loophole. Somewhere, a court may try to narrow that loophole so not just anyone can fit through it. That’s bad for the law, and it may be bad for religion, too.

The politicized religion of the Religious Right has opened a Pandora’s box with Hobby Lobby. Do Americans really want to abandon secular law and the separation of church and state, which has worked well for this country for 223 years? (The Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to the Constitution — went into effect on Dec. 15, 1791). Do Americans really want to descend into sectarian divisions and violence that ravaged Europe and the Middle East for centuries? Because that is where we are headed if conservative activists judges start allowing individuals to “opt out” of complying with laws of general application to the public based solely on their subjective religious beliefs. This is a recipe for chaos.

8 responses to “From Kennedy to Hobby Lobby: the politicization of religion in America

  1. Many of the conservative blogs squelch conversation from the beginning by moderating all comments, taking NO comments, or forcing people to register before they can comment.

  2. dwight d leister

    the total number of migrants to ellis island since its founding in the 1800s to its closing in 1954 was 12 million! the purpose of ellis island was to screen out those who had illness that would infect others-something the department of homeland security is threatening current doctors treating the illegals will be fired if they reveal the threat posed today to the American public !

  3. Crackerhead

    Do you honestly believe that American governance has been secular in nature for 223 years? We have always been a nation whose laws are tinged with protestant Christian principals. That is a major reason many Americans believe we are a nation founded on Christianity. It is woven throughout our culture, our laws, our jury findings, our Court findings. For you to postulate that we were a nation of pure secular laws for 223 years is ridiculous. It is only in the last 50 years that concern has been raised about religion and politics being mixed. And the efforts undertaken to change that have met stiff resistance. This still a largely religious country and efforts to discount that have resulted in numerous laws – some good, some bad – to protect the religious influence.

    This latest situation with Hobby Lobby has occurred because owners of corporations who hold religious beliefs are being forced by secular laws to ignore and violate their beliefs. That they are refusing to roll over and accept these secular laws infuriates the leftists who will not tolerate anyone or anything not kowtowing before their superior intellect and ideas. The truth is this is just one more battle in a cultural war that will wage on for a long time.

    • Now you have done it Crackerhead! You have dared to question the statist utopia.

      You will soon discover that the politeness that you spoke of in a prior post will soon be met with the same vitriol that you witnessed on other left leaning sites.

      • Crackerhead

        No, I won’t. The majority of posters here are ignoring me in the hope I go away.

      • C’mon, Dang, that’s unfair, and ridiculous. Even Thucky complimented me on my politeness towards him. (Okay, he may no longer feel that way, but still) And Rep. Kavanagh, with whom I had several exchanges on our comment pages, welcomed my help when I supported legislation he had authored. Heck, you yourself showed appreciation for your nickname when I first used it.
        Truth is, Crackerhead has a positive quality most blog commenters, both right and left, lack. He’ll acknowledge when he gets something wrong or the other side gets something right. You don’t see that often.

        • I know this is after the fact Bob but I did consider singling you out as an exception. However, I decided against it to save bandwidth.

          Having said that Bob, Can you honestly say that others on this site follow the same reasoned approach as yourself?

          • Thanks, I appreciate that.

            I think the approaches taken by other writers vary, as do the approaches taken by commenters. And I think you’ll find the same thing over on the conservative blogs. My guess is that Espresso Pundit would engage with a commenter from the other side. Seeing Red AZ makes clear they have no interest in such dialogue. And, by the way, that’s their prerogative.

            I do think that you as a commenter have some control over it. If you keep it friendly, sooner or later that tone will be reciprocated. I think.