Right-Wing Religion's War on America
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From a posh residence in the heart of New York City that has been described as a “mini-mansion,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan is perhaps the most visible representative of an American church empire of 60 million adherents and vast financial holdings.
Dolan and his fellow clergy move easily through the corridors of political power, courted by big-city mayors, governors and even presidents. In the halls of Congress, they are treated with a deference no secular lobbyist can match.
From humble origins in America, the church has risen to lofty heights marked by affluence, political influence and social respect. Yet, according to church officials, they are being increasingly persecuted, and their rights are under sustained attack.
The refrain has become commonplace: There is a “war on religion.” Faith is under assault. The administration of President Barack Obama has unleashed a bombardment on religion unlike anything ever seen.
The average American would be hard-pressed to see evidence of this “war.” Millions of people meet regularly in houses of worship. What’s more, those institutions are tax exempt. Many denominations participate in taxpayer-funded social service programs. Their clergy regularly speak out on the issues of the day. In the political arena, religious leaders are treated with great respect.
Furthermore, religious organizations often get special breaks that aren’t accorded to their secular counterparts. Houses of worship aren’t required to report their income to the Internal Revenue Service. They don’t have to apply for tax-exempt status; they receive it automatically as soon as they form. Religious entities are routinely exempted from employment laws, anti-discrimination measures and even routine health and safety inspections.
Unlike secular lobbies, religious groups that work with legislators on Capitol Hill don’t have to register with the federal government and are free from the stringent reporting requirements imposed on any group that seeks to influence legislation.
Religion in America would seem to be thriving in this “hands-off” atmosphere, as evidenced by church attendance rates, which in the United States tend to be higher than any other Western nation. So where springs this “war on religion” talk?
Twin dynamics, mutually related and interdependent, are likely at work. On one hand, some religious groups are upping their demands for even more exemptions from general laws. When these are not always extended, leaders of these groups scream about hostility toward religion and say they are being discriminated against. This catches the attention of right-wing political leaders, who toss gasoline on the rhetorical fires.
A textbook example of this occurred during the recent flap over coverage of contraceptives under the new health care reform. The law seeks to ensure a baseline of coverage for all Americans, and birth control is included. Insurance firms that contract with companies must make it available with no co-pays.
Houses of worship are exempt from this requirement. But religiously affiliated organizations, such as church-run hospitals, colleges and social service agencies, are dealt with differently. The insurance companies that serve them must make contraceptives available to the employees of these entities, but the religious agencies don’t have to pay for them directly.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) attacked this policy and insisted that it violates the church’s right of conscience. Furthermore, the hierarchy insisted that all private employers should also have the right to deny any medical coverage that conflicts with their beliefs – no matter what the religious views of their employees.
The issue quickly became mired in partisan politics. Claims of a “war on religion” expand on long-held Religious Right seasonal claims of an alleged “war on Christmas.” The assertions of yuletide hostility paid great dividends to the Religious Right. They boosted groups’ fund-raising efforts and motivated some activists to get involved in politics.