I’ve been fascinated with the furor over the Obama administration’s decision to make Catholic hospitals, charities, and universities provide contraception coverage in their health insurance. The administration, which could hardly have handled the situation more stupidly, ultimately backed off, though the accommodation it eventually offered has not satisfied the bishops or some of the Catholic institutions that would be affected.

Now Catholic bishops are demanding that all Catholic employers have the right to refuse contraceptive coverage to their employees. Does it follow that Jehovah’s Witness employers should be permitted to offer insurance that doesn’t cover blood transfusions? This is religious liberty gone mad, but the problem exists in the first place only because of the loony idea that it’s up to employers to provide health care to employees. This whole to-do is a good argument for a single-payer approach to health insurance.

Strong criticism of the original mandate briefly united conservative and progressive Catholics, and was joined by Orthodox Christians, Evangelicals, and Orthodox Jews. This doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is what hasn’t bothered most of the critics here.

Every Christian who votes and pays taxes (me included) has already agreed to pay for our wars, for the deaths of small children caused by our drones, for the continuation of the injustice of Guantánamo, for the “rendition” of suspected terrorists to countries where they are tortured, sometimes to death, and—depending on what state you live in—for the salary of the person who will kill someone condemned to death. With the exception of Ron Paul, every Republican candidate has defended the use of torture, as did the Bush administration. I don’t remember one episcopal peep about any of this. The talk about religious liberty and what we can tolerate here amounts to drawing a little line in the sand—about six inches long—as we stand with our backs to a sea full of blood.

The relationship of Christians to the state has been shaky and strange from the start, and it should be. There should be no peace here, no comfort. St. Paul’s willingness to accommodate state authority was based in part on the assumption that Christ’s return was imminent. (Our assumption should probably be the same.) By contrast, the idea we seem to have grown into is that we can now settle down and take our ease, just looking after our own interests in a country some people really believe to be a Christian—or even a “chosen”—nation. This is plainly a wicked idea.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a story, a parable really, called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It tells of a city whose citizens’ idyllic life depends on a horrible agreement. A child is tormented and may not be consoled or comforted in any way. All citizens are made aware of this, and agree to it. They understand that to violate the agreement will end the comfort and prosperity of the city. Some are able to live with this easily and, having seen the child’s misery, ignore it. Others are made more sensitive to their own children, to the suffering of others. But there are some (and they are clearly the ones we are meant to consider most seriously) who walk away from Omelas, who will have nothing to do with the convenient arrangement.

Much has been made of the difference between the early church and the church after Constantine—sometimes too much. The church before the imperial era was not so pure as some would have us believe (Acts and the epistles make its messiness apparent), and there were important acts of resistance to the emperor and the empire after Constantine.

Still, the general silence of religious people about serious moral matters in which we are implicated as citizens is impressive, in an entirely negative way. And the narrowing of morality to matters involving sexuality, while we overlook such issues as torture, our shameful incarceration rate (America has more people under “correctional supervision” than Stalin had in his gulags), and the deaths of innocent people in wars no one seriously believes we can win—this truly is obscene.

It may not be possible for people on the right or left to walk away from any of this. For most of us the Amish approach isn’t possible or desirable; but it certainly should not be scorned. The accommodations we make with a society that seems to need violence at levels both subtle and overt to keep most of us feeling safe and comfortable is too reminiscent of Le Guin’s parable to let me feel any ease.

The current drama over contraception—and especially the belief that religious liberty is itself under attack in some serious way, rather than misunderstood by a ham-handed administration—seems to me overwrought. People who worry about same-sex unions and contraception seem to sleep easily with the thought of torture and the imprisonment of millions. This really is straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel, and it is easy to see why so many people find it hard to take what passes for religion seriously.

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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Published in the 2012-03-23 issue: View Contents
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