Narrowly-Defined Religion

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Here's an interesting analysis by D.A. Carson of three recent cases of what he calls the intolerence of tolerance that happened after his book on the subject came out: the Chick fil-A ban issue, a case of a liberal seminary trying to discipline a very respected faculty member for including a theologically-traditional book on homosexuality in the curriculum, and the HHS contraception mandate.

I'm not sure I have anything interesting to say about the first two cases he discusses that hasn't already been said ad nauseam. But he says something very interesting about the third case he discusses, the HHS mandate.
If Carson is right in his analysis of the HSS mandate, the government is willing to allow a lot of exceptions to the HHS mandate that have nothing to do with religious opposition to contraception or drugs with unintended abortifacient effects. But they won't allow a religious exception to this mandate on either of those two grounds. And they're arguing not that there should be no freedom of religion as an exception to government mandates nor that the drugs in question do not have an abortifacient effect (as some do argue). Instead, they argue that we should take taking 'religion' narrowly to include things like public gatherings for worship but not to include things like views on ethics.

What strikes me as extremely interesting about that is that would raise some serious questions about a lot of fairly common practices of excluding religion or seeking to exclude religion from the public sphere. If religion has to do with corporate gatherings of worship but not individual beliefs, then a lone science teacher who wants to include some discussion of philosophical arguments about design in a science classroom is not engaging in religion. I would have thought that patently obvious, but courts seem not to agree. The interesting question here is whether the Obama Administration's view of religion with respect to the HHS mandate can be made consistent with that practice of excluding long-standing philosophical discussions from science classrooms on the ground that such philosophical discussions are religion. They are not, on any sane analysis. They are philosophy. But that should be so much clearer if other philosophical views such as ethical views are not religion. Metaphysics surely is not either. If it is, I'd like to see the argument why one and not the other should count as religion or why we should have different standards for what counts as religion in the two cases.

Another place religion is often excluded is in the contention among many on the left that it's immoral for voters to decide who they should vote for or which policies to prefer if their reasons are based on their religious views (or politicians to decide which policies to support based on their own or their constituents' views). The same inconsistency would apply if the government's position on HHS is correct. If someone opposes abortion for purely religious reasons (which I think is true of some but certainly not all and probably not most pro-lifers), then it's not religion according to this approach, and those who resist anyone's attempt to vote pro-life on such grounds as thoroughly immoral cannot do so consistently with claiming that Wheaton College's resistance to the HHS mandate is not religion. This isn't even two different branches of philosophy, as the above example of metaphysics and ethics is. Here we have two examples of not just ethical views but of the very same ethical view, so there's no arguing that one case is religion and the other not. We'd have to argue that different standards for what counts as religion should apply in the two different cases, and I have no idea how that argument would go.

So assuming Carson is right on how the government is pursuing these cases (and I admit to not looking into them as carefully as he has), those who want to do either of the things I've pointed to have a real problem on their hands if they also want to defend the enforcement of the HHS mandate in these cases in the way the government seems to be doing it. I'm not sure how a consistent approach to all these questions can end up agreeing with the Obama Administration on this case that these ethical beliefs are not religion while still opposing the two things I've identified as religion.

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