Whether the federal contraception mandate stands or falls, it has changed U.S. politics forever, the head of the Knights of Columbus observed during the 2012 Catholic Media Conference.
“It definitely has changed the political landscape,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson told CNA in a June 22 interview at the convention held in downtown Indianapolis.
“What we see clearly, is an attempt to redefine the role of religion in American society.”
The Obama administration, he said, is applying a “very narrow” conception of religion and its social role. “So that leads us to ask the question: What will the administration do next, whether or not it wins on the HHS mandate?”
He predicted that U.S. politics would be permanently changed by the assault on the Church's freedom and its role in society, even if the HHS mandate eventually fails.
“Once of the 'genie is out of the bottle,' it's going to be difficult to put it back in,” the head of the Catholic fraternal order noted. “It ought to give us all very serious concern.”
Anderson, a veteran lawyer, explained that the administration's restrictive view of religion was previously seen in the “Hosanna-Tabor” Supreme Court case, pitting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against a Lutheran church and school.
In that 2011 case, Anderson recalled, the government attempted “a redefinition of what constitutes 'ministry,'” claiming that a teacher of religious and secular subjects was not a “minister” and could not be fired at the school's discretion. The school's rights, however, were unanimously upheld by the court.
Shortly after that decision was handed down, Health and Human Services finalized its contraception mandate, forcing religious institutions – except those covered under a narrow exemption – to provide services that violate their moral principles, including sterilization and abortion-causing drugs.
According to Anderson, both the Hosanna-Tabor case and the HHS mandate are part of a larger effort to redefine religious freedom and marginalize faith-based institutions.
In Hosanna-Tabor, “the administration was arguing for the most narrow possible, most restrictive possible, definition of ministry.” Similarly, the HHS mandate granted an exemption only to institutions that primarily employ and serve those of the same faith for the purpose of spreading “religious values.”
The Obama administration, Anderson said, “has continued to attempt to redefine religion, by taking an extremely narrow definition of what constitutes a 'religious institution.'”
“Many institutions that we would normally think of as part of the charitable or service mission of the Church, suddenly are defined out of the ambit of being a faith-based religious institution.”
Even if the HHS mandate is defeated in court, or fundamentally changed by the administration, the thinking behind it will persist and continue to shape political life.
“What we're seeing is a paradigm shift – in how religion is viewed in American society, and the role of religion. Once you make that shift, the logic leads on down a certain path. And that path is: 'Wherever we can find a less inclusive role for religion, we take the less inclusive role.'”
To turn back from this course, Anderson suggested, Americans must first “understand authentically what the Constitution intends by the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause.” These clauses exist not to marginalize religion, but to protect its integrity and allow it to shape social life.
The head of the Knights of Columbus also wants Americans to rediscover “the role of religion in society in promoting the common good,” as envisioned by the country's founders.
“American society has traditionally found, and the Founders believed, that religion is a good – and is good for the common good,” the Supreme Knight noted. “We value a freedom because the freedom produces a good in society.”
“If you look at the history of the Catholic Church in America – where we built so many schools, and hospitals, and orphanages, and Catholic charities – it's a tremendous contribution.”
But modern Americans, Anderson said, may have a “diminished sense of the role of religion in fostering the common good.” Without this sense of religion's social role, its “free exercise” may be misunderstood as serving only the self-interests of believers, rather than the nation's common interest.
To fight this perception, Anderson suggested Catholics “need to tell our story better – and we also need to do more.” The Church's social teaching, he said, “should compel Catholics to works of greater charity in society, to promote the common good.”
By using their freedom to serve society as a whole, Catholics can help all Americans rediscover religious liberty as a universal good – worth preserving not only for the benefit of believers, but for the good of the whole country.
To preserve their religious freedom in the long term, Anderson suggested, Catholics “have to have a more visible role in society – and a more effective role in society – in actually doing those things that actually benefit the common good.”