Much has been made of the Obama administration's "War on Religion." The controversy surrounding the contraception mandate included in the Affordable Care Act has become a central issue in the campaign as each candidate attempts to garner the important Catholic vote.
Under the HHS contraception mandate, every employer with more than 50 employees is required to provide group health insurance that includes no-cost taxpayer-funded services including sterilization and contraception. Included in contraception are abortifacients – drugs that act to destroy embryos, rather than just preventing conception. Churches and other houses of worship are exempted from the mandate, while other religious institutions such as schools, universities, hospitals, and charitable agencies are not. The Obama administration attempted a compromise, stating that religious institutions do not have to directly pay for contraceptive services; rather, women that work for those institutions can receive contraception directly from the insurance companies. This compromise has clearly not satisfied Catholic critics of the mandate. Catholics are not alone. Evangelicals have joined in litigation. Jewish and Muslim leaders have also issued formal protests. Currently, there are 28 separate lawsuits pending in federal courts with over 80 separate plaintiffs.
The evidence for Obama's war on religion doesn't end with the HHS mandate. A recent book by noted conservative Phyllis Schlafly and writer George Neumayr entitled, "No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom," chronicles other examples of the Obama administration's assault on religious freedom. Included in the list is a February 2009 decision to eliminate conscience protections for pro-life nurses and doctors working at federally funded hospitals; a May 2009 elimination of all funding for abstinence-only sex education; and, a September 2011 revision of guidelines for Walter Reed Army Hospital prohibiting the distribution of religious materials during visits. (This last decision created such controversy in Congress that it was ultimately rejected.) The list of examples goes on.
While it may be tempting for the Left to reduce such criticism to conservative over-sensitivity on the part of the "Religious Right" or to some kind of conspiracy theory that questions Obama's religious affiliation, far more is going on in this administration's view of religious freedom in America. Indeed, the whole question of religious freedom in the United States, and abroad, speaks to the central issue of this, the most critical election of our lifetime.
As we know, the first of our enumerated freedoms identified in the Bill of Rights is religious freedom. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …" Indeed, the impetus for 105 individuals to cross the Atlantic on the Mayflower and begin a new life in Plymouth Colony was the desire to flee religious and political tyranny, in order to worship freely. Religious freedom is not an adjunct – an add-on to more fundamental rights. Religious freedom speaks to what is most foundational to the American experiment. It is not government that creates freedom for the individual; rather, it is the individual, "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," as the Declaration of Independence puts it, which creates government "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Religious freedom strikes at the very core of what it means to be a free individual. The inherent right to worship God as one sees fit without government coercion or interference transcends the powers of the State, regardless of how the State may define what is "for the common good." The right to exercise one's conscience without state compulsion to the contrary is essential to our liberty. Our nation was founded on the principle that we, as individuals, are free, not because our freedom is derived from the State, but precisely because it is in the very nature of being human (whether one views humanity as created by God or not). The trampling of such religious freedom on the part of the Obama administration speaks to a very different vision of America, one in which the collective, the State, trumps the individual, and religious belief is subordinated to commitment to the State and its vision of the common good.
It was no accident that the President in his address to the Democratic National Convention this past September asserted, "government is the only thing we all belong to." In Obama's America, the State and its interests transcends the individual and the individual's associations. The individuals commitments, convictions, and conscience, are subordinated to the purposes of the State, as the State determines what is best for the whole. Such a vision turns the Constitution upside down and leads to the very tyranny the Founders fought to overcome.
The stakes could not be higher in this upcoming election. Many have said that this is truly a battle for America's soul. This is not mere hyperbole. While it has taken many decades to get here, we find ourselves at a crossroads. The course we now seem to be taking leads to a reverence for the State and its power to decide what is best for the collective. Over 30 years ago, Richard John Neuhaus wrote in his prescient book, "The Naked Public Square" that "a perverse notion of the disestablishment of religion leads to the establishment of the state as church." I fear that we are on that road.
The other path, however, leads to a continued reverence for individual liberty, including that most sacred, transcendent freedom of conscience and belief. I pray, and I do mean pray, that we may take this less-traveled road.
David Henderson, a former Episcopal priest of 20 years, is currently preparing for ordination to the priesthood in the Greek Orthodox Church. He lives with his wife and their four daughters in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.