Archive | February, 2012

Rick Santorum, the environment and the lessons of Noah’s flood

27 Feb

"Noah's Ark," by Edward Hicks, 1846

I hope all Christians paid close attention to Sunday’s Scripture readings in church, but especially GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The Old Testament lectionary reading came from Genesis, describing the scene after the big flood (Genesis 9:8-17). You know: Noah, the ark, the animals, etc. According to the story, God unilaterally promised never again to destroy the entire world with a flood, and he was careful to include not just human beings but “every animal of the earth.”

I don’t usually mention Sunday school classes here, but ours had a lively conversation and one person’s remark referred to an earlier passage, one that explained why God sent the flood in the first place:

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Genesis 6:5-7, New Revised Standard Version).

So why did God target all the creatures—dogs and cats and cows and spiders—as well as people? It doesn’t make sense for God to entirely scrub down creation. Only the humans sinned, right?

But then there’s an even earlier and more familiar verse:

 “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (1:26).

Rick Santorum

That’s what made me think of Rick Santorum. He likes to quote this verse, especially when talking about “radical environmentalists.” Santorum, a Roman Catholic,  believes they get in the way of creating jobs and progress and a good economy, and he said they engage in “some phony theology” (lumping the president in with them last week). As he explained to CBS newsman Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation last week, he was talking about

“the idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do—that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.”

That, by itself, sounds fine to me. As a Christian, I’m all for stewardship and not at all for earth worship.

But a quick reading of his energy policies makes it clear what Santorum means. He proposes, for example, to “remove bans on drilling—both onshore and offshore” and “repeal bureaucratic regulations such as EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations, Utility MACT, Boiler MACT, Cement MACT, the reclassification of coal ash, and any regulation of farm dust,” among other policies.

I couldn’t help noticing the lack of any qualifiers. Does he mean to remove all bans and all regulations?

His energy policies, on the other hand, don’t include one word about environmental impact—not to consider it, not to study it, not even to give it a polite nod in passing. It just doesn’t exist in the Santorum universe.

But since he appeals to theology, then to theology we must go—and that means we can’t ignore the rest of the message in Genesis.

The story of Noah is clear: we dominant humans are responsible for the fate of all creation. Think of Spider-man, only at a cosmic level: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks, about 1845

“Dominion” isn’t a license to recklessly “kill, baby, kill” or “drill, baby, drill.” Yes, according to the Bible, humans are empowered to draw on the world’s resources. But every good “steward” (to use Santorum’s word) knows the wisdom of thoughtful restraint and moderation. Every good farmer and hunter knows the difference between reaping the land and raping it, of working with nature rather than exploiting it. Or as one commentator put it more eloquently,

“Creation, including humanity, is one. What affects part affects all. The deep purpose of nature is diversity in unity under God’s ownership. Yet humanity consistently fails to accept its given limits and attempts to take possession of life into its own hands, contaminating the cosmos with violence and fear.” (William Loyd Allen, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.)

And then, of course, is the teaching of Santorum’s own church. As far back as 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote:

Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. The public in general as well as political leaders are concerned about this problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying its causes. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives. (Emphasis added.)

Rick Santorum has the right to get theological if he wants, even as he runs for president. But I’m not sure he really wants to do that.

Overreach begets overreach in birth-control debate

20 Feb

There must be some kind of Newtonian law for politics, along the lines of, “For every overreach there is an equal and opposite overreach.” Case in point.

President Obama had been warned: Don’t force religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover contraceptives, and it’s no secret that more than a few religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, teach that using artificial birth control is morally wrong.

But on Jan. 20, that’s exactly what Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced would happen. The Administration’s idea of an olive branch at that point was to give religious-based organizations and institutions, such as Catholic hospitals, universities and charities, a year to figure out how to comply.

The reaction was literally predictable. The American Catholic bishops were ready with their message: This is nothing less than a trespass on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

For the first three weeks, that message reverberated enough to stir up a broad coalition. Not only the usual suspects who oppose the very ground the president walks on, but even left-leaning Catholic leaders, who support the right to birth control, saw this as a classic church-state battle, a war on religion.

Then on Feb. 10, the president announced an “accommodation”: religious institutions would not be required to offer contraception coverage, pay for it, or even inform their employees about it. Instead, women would deal directly with health insurers. The president painted this new arrangement as an effort to balance the concerns of conscience with the rights of Americans to receive the health-care options they wanted.

The Administration avoided words like “compromise” and “climb down,” but that’s what it was. It had overreached and got its hand smacked.

A good number of Catholics and other religious leaders applauded the move at first, but not all and not for long. The bishops and other critics pressed the president, saying the accommodation wasn’t accommodating enough, that it was only window dressing. The war-on-religion rhetoric got louder and shriller.

And that’s when that political law of physics kicked in, because last week—maybe during the House hearings on religious liberty—the fulcrum of the debate shifted from being about freedom of religion to being about church leaders who want to force their morality on the nation. The big media story changed.

Suddenly, the church wasn’t the victim of government imposition but the ones doing the imposing, threatening the reproductive rights of American women. The church leaders had been winning the public debate, but because they did not strategically settle for the win, they handed critics had the opening they needed.

Along the way, critics took shots at the bishops’ for their apparent inconsistencies in what social issues they choose to address or not address, and, inevitably, about the sex-abuse scandals. Could the word “hypocrite” be far behind?

Suddenly, they were the ones who looked overreaching.

The president was amazingly tone-deaf when he issued the initial contraceptive rule. He tried to fix it, but he’ll continue to pay for his mistake whenever an opponent wants to raise the specter of a secularized chief executive, a president who doesn’t share the world view of most Americans, who doesn’t follow “a real theology.” (Hello, Rick Santorum.)

But the president’s critics, particularly the Catholic bishops, overreached when they kept pushing after he compromised because they made themselves easy targets for opponents to raise the specter of power-hungry theocrats who don’t care about women’s health.

Of course, the bishops aren’t trying to get re-elected in November.

White House announcing ‘accommodations’ for religious objections to contraceptive rule

10 Feb

Today President Obama is announcing new “accommodations” for religious nonprofit organizations that object to a rule requiring them to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ insurance plans. The rule has brewed up a political and PR storm for the Administration since the Department of Health and Human Services announced it on Jan. 20.

While churches were exempted from the rule, other religious organizations and charities, such as hospitals and universities, were not, even those affiliated with denominations that teach contraception is morally wrong. Critics said the rule effectively trespassed on religious freedom.

During a Friday morning conference call with reporters, senior administration officials outlined the new “accommodations,” under which women will have free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where they work. “The policy also ensures that if a woman works for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to offer contraceptive care free of charge,” according to a White House fact sheet.

The officials, speaking on background, said these provisions will be “cost neutral,” pointing out that there were no insurance premium increases when contraception was added to the Federal Employees Health Benefit System and that one study found that “covering contraception lowered premiums by 10 percent or more,” partly because women who use contraceptives typically stay healthier.

So: religious organizations will not need to provide contraceptive coverage or refer their employees to organizations that provide contraception. They will not be required to subsidize the cost of contraception. Coverage will be offered to women by their employers’ insurance companies directly, “with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception,” according to the White House. Insurance companies will be required to provide contraception coverage to these women free of charge.

The White House has been under fire since announcing the rule last month, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops leading the charge, saying the administration was threatening religious liberty. Other religious leaders and groups, including Orthodox, evangelicals and liberal Catholics (as well as Republican party leaders and presidential candidates) also joined the opposition.

Administration officials insisted today that a one-year transition for religious organizations, announced Jan. 20, was intended to give time to “work out solutions” in implementation. But reporters pushed back, since the initial announcement stated the one-year period would give organizations time to “comply with the new law” and “adapt to this new rule.” One reporter asked if the White House had “a messaging problem.”

Polarized politics, righteous minds, and Dr. Who

6 Feb

Working on a project the other day, I came across this quotation, courtesy of that brilliant British social critic, Dr. Who (circa 1977):

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views—which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”

The quote is out there. When I searched on the Internet to confirm the source, I found it at several other web sites, including this one and this one.

See? The left and right really can find common ground. Except I have a hunch they’ll differ about who exactly are “the very powerful and the very stupid.”

But seriously, folks …

Bill Moyers broadcast a fascinating interview on Sunday with philosopher and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt about why American liberals and conservatives see the world so differently, to the point that our current political polarization seems inevitable. While U.S. politics has always been rough and tumble, the consensus is that we’re witnessing something different in our time, something toxic. It seems that most public debates don’t stop at disagreement these days. Now we push on to personal demonization. I’m not talking only about recent televised debates among professional politicians. I’ve been tempted to cancel my Facebook account a few times in the last six months because of the rancor coming from some amateurs.

Jonathan Haidt, appearing on "Moyers and Co."

“When it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but … the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise,” Haidt told Moyers. “Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

Haidt, who teaches social psychology at the University of Virginia and is a visiting professor of business ethics at NYU-Stern School of Business, traces the roots of our current state of affairs to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Moyers himself was involved in those pieces of legislation, as President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary.) He also offered a couple of realistic suggestions about how we might start reducing the temperature and return to more civil discourse and a more functional public life. To view the Moyers-Haidt interview, go here.

If you’re wondering where Haidt himself stands, he said he began his research as a confirmed liberal but now describes himself as a moderate. In his opinion, he said, conservative intellectuals understand basic human nature better than liberal intellectuals. That statement alone could prompt a good conversation either in a classroom or a dining room. (Go ahead. Don’t let me stop you.)

He has a new book coming out in March that explores the connections between morality and politics, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). I don’t pre-order many books, but after listening to Haidt, I think I’ll make an exception.

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Coming soon: Notes about the new rule from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will require all health-insurance providers–including religion-based organizations–to provide contraceptives to women, even if the religious organization believes it is wrong. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a growing number of other church leaders are calling this an infringement of religious liberty.

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