Faith, Religion and Rick Santorum

SantorumRick Santorum believes that the government mandating contraception in health care plans is a form of religious persecution. Such a policy, he says, “deliberately undermin[es] religious liberty” by compelling Catholic institutions, who object to contraception as against the teachings of the church, to provide—even indirectly—a product that goes against their moral beliefs. Along the same lines, a judge in Washington state ruled recently that pharmacists (and pharmacies) could refuse to sell the morning-after pill if they have a religious objection to it.

There are many other examples of this. One of the common threads linking these instances is the notion that there is—or should be—legal protection preventing a person from being connected in any way to actions they consider religiously immoral. In the case of mandated contraception coverage, the objection is that, since the employees would receive it through a health care plan provided by the Catholic institution, the institution would ultimately be responsible for the birth control. Likewise, the pharmacist who performs the transaction selling Plan B would be morally culpable in the customer’s using Plan B.

Leaving aside the problematic fact that these cases all seem to revolve around procreative issues, they seem to display a skewed understanding of the interaction between religious morality and society, and the law’s place in this interaction. And at the most basic level is the link between faith and religion.

Faith is deeply personal. How a person understands his or her relationship (or lack thereof) with God is inherently individualized.* It’s a snowflake. A person’s conception of God and this relationship and its personal importance influences any number of other core, individual values, including determinations of right and wrong, the connection with others, with the world, even the understanding one’s own existence. This, I think, applies to everyone. Someone who considers Jesus to be their personal savior may strive to help others because they feel commanded to do so; an atheist may strive to help others because they feel that that is the essence of being a good person. The issue is fundamentally the same.

Religion, by contrast, is not individualized. Religion is communal. Where faith is internal, religion is external. Even within the same religious community, two individuals’ understanding of God and this connection can differ widely. Religion forms the link between each person’s faith. (A heretic in this respect is one whose faith falls beyond the parameters of the community, where no link can be made.) For those of other communities, religion is the medium for interaction. In essence, religion mediates between people’s respective faiths.

The two are connected, to be sure; one’s religion (or, again, lack thereof) undoubtedly bears an influence on their faith, and one’s faith is, I think, determinative of their understanding of religion. But faith is the more important of the two. Faith does not need religion. Religion needs faith absolutely. (Without it, religion falls into the realm of mere ideology.) But they are not the same. The Pope, whose authority lies in religion, cannot compel a Catholic to have a particular faith. He can declare a person’s faith beyond the pale of Catholicism, of course, and they may well adjust their faith accordingly. But it would be that person doing so, not the Pope.

As a deeply personal matter, faith is legally inviolable. The government cannot infringe upon an individual’s right to believe whatever they wish, to understand their connection with the divine in any manner whatsoever. And it should not. Religion, however, as something that falls under the umbrella of interpersonal matters, cannot be protected to the same degree. The freedom of religion and worship is not absolute and does face limits. (SCOTUS says so.)

The problem with Rick Santorum’s understanding of this is that he conflates religion with faith. He not only believes that his personal faith and morality applies to every act and interaction he has—which is his prerogative—but that anything that compromises or infringes upon that undermines his faith. It is apparent in his now-famous response to JFK’s speech on the separation of church and state:

The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. This is the First Amendment. The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy […] articulated a vision where he said ‘No. Faith is not allowed in the public square.’

How Santorum presents his point is telling. He objects to the idea that “the church” should have no role in the function of the state, which he attributes to Kennedy, who said (according to Santorum) that “faith is not allowed in the public square”. Kennedy’s rejection of the Catholic Church’s influence in government (a religious body par excellence) for Santorum means a rejection of faith in government.

Santorum doesn’t stop there, but extrapolates to the present day, stating that President Obama “is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we [i.e. the government] are going to impose our values on you […] we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.” So, by restricting religion’s place—the Church—within the state, the government precludes faith, and, by extension, seeks to change the faith of individuals. This is, of course, nonsense. But to Santorum, any limit on the exercise of religion equals an attack on faith. Religion, in this understanding, becomes just as legally inviolable as faith.

This understanding has significant social ramifications. As the very good interview on the Daily Show with Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of moral theology at Notre Dame, shows, the interaction between (in this case Catholic) morality and society at large can be very messy, with few clear-cut distinctions and myriad shades of gray. But Santorum—the pharmacists, too—apparently have very strict and straightforward moral codes. Which is their right. But they do not have the right to subordinate someone else’s moral code to their own when a conflict arises.

More importantly, the government has a duty to protect everyone’s rights, even if that means restricting some forms of religious expression. In the pharmacists’ case, a person’s right to important medication outweighs the pharmacists’ objection to that medication’s purpose. Legally obliging them to sell Plan B does indeed infringe on their morality, but only insofar as it prevents their morality from infringing upon the actions of others. The pharmacists may object to the morning-after pill’s very existence, but that’s part of the messy interaction between morality and society. Their objection is not protected by the First Amendment. The government is not compelling them to use contraception, which would be a clear violation of their faith, but is also not compelling them to profit off its sale. (The pharmacists, for example, are free to donate the proceeds to any charity they wish. That way their consciences could be assuaged without restricting anyone else’s rights.)

In a society that includes people of all different sorts of faith (in the sense used here), everyone’s right to their own faith must be respected, while acknowledging and accommodating difference. To treat religious matters as utterly inviolable is simply unfeasible in a diverse society. Keeping faith conceptually separate from religion—thus rightfully protecting the former while managing the latter—is far better than the other option.

* This is not to exclude atheists or agnostics, or to imply that (mono)theism is the norm. By ‘faith’ I mean a person’s conception of their connection to the divine. For an atheist, that would obviously be the utter absence of a connection (or even the absence of an entity to which such a connection could exist). Nevertheless, that lack of connection is of the same genus. I use ‘faith’ for sheer lack of a better word. (I don’t think ‘belief’ works either. I’m open to suggestion.)

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1 Comment

Filed under America, media, politics, religion

One response to “Faith, Religion and Rick Santorum

  1. Pingback: Tim’s occasional comments » Blog Archive » Good blog

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