Wednesday, February 22, 2012

More Thoughts on the Birth Control Debate

Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.I Corinthians 7:2-7

The Apostle Paul is regularly criticized for having a bad attitude toward women, and for infecting Christianity with it. As a long time fan of Paul’s theology, I have spent many hours defending Paul’s views with friends and colleagues. And just for the record, I want to say again that many of the worst “anti-female” passages attributed to Paul were not actually written by him. And we need to take all of it in context.

But compared to the sentiments expressed in the recent debates about health care and birth control, Paul sounds like the voice of reason, even after two thousand years. Within the covenant of marriage, he argues, the satisfaction of sexual desire is not a sin, and married couples should not withhold that pleasure from each other. And note exactly what he says, “Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again.”
One is hard pressed to conjure up an argument against birth control from Paul’s perspective.

In the conflict between Roman Catholic agencies and institutions and the requirement of the Affordable Care Act, that employee health insurance provide free coverage for birth control prescriptions, the church has argued that as a matter of religious freedom it should be allowed to deny that coverage to women. Religious freedom is enshrined in the first amendment to our constitution, and it is cornerstone of who we are as Americans. But that is not the last word. This is a real healthcare issue for women, as well as a serious family issue.

I wrote earlier about how similar coverage is already mandated in 28 states and many Roman Catholic institutions already comply with those mandates.

In one of the doomsday arguments against the regulations, opponents raised the specter of Catholic Charities being “forced” to close and thereby putting a giant hole in our social safety net. There is no doubt that Catholic Charities is a major supplier of social services to the poorest people in our nation, and they deserve our thanks for that ministry. But we should note that of their $4.67 billion annual budget (in 2010), $2.9 billion (62%) came from federal grants. Only $140 million came directly from Diocesan churches. The rest came from in-kind gifts, investments, community campaigns, and program fees.

And one more thing to think about: The Roman Catholic agencies in question already provide coverage for Viagra. It is not surprising that many women’s groups see the whole argument as profoundly anti-female.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Nostalgia, Conformity and the Prayer Banner

The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us, for we have sinned!
Because of this our hearts are sick,
because of these things
our eyes have grown dim . . .
Lamentations 5:14-17
Tonight the Cranston School Committee will meet at Cranston East High to decide whether or not they will appeal the ruling of a Federal Court judge that the prayer banner at Cranston West is unconstitutional and must be removed.

One politician has issued a “call to arms” to defend the banner, and another has called the student who brought the lawsuit, Jessica Ahlquist, “an evil little thing.” People are angry. The young woman has been threatened and insulted repeatedly.

If Jessica Ahlquist had any doubt that she was right to reject religion, the hateful response of people who call themselves Christians has erased that doubt. And ironically, the reaction of those who want the banner to remain represents a total rejection of the values expressed and prayed for in the banner:

Our Heavenly Father,
Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

But this isn’t really about prayer. It’s about nostalgia. It’s about mourning for a way of life that is gone. For supporters, the banner represents a time when life was good and safe; a time of shared values and shared goals. People got married before they had kids. Moms stayed home and took care of the kids. Divorce was rare. The middle class was strong. A high school diploma was a passport to financial security. Men worked for the same companies for thirty or forty years and retired comfortably.

Taking down the banner is one more reminder that those days are gone.

And more than that, it forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that those days never really existed in the way we want to remember them. Our harmony was built on conformity. We told ourselves that the conformity was voluntarily embraced and universally welcomed. But that’s not really true. Gays were in the closet and blacks were at the back of the bus (literally in the south, and figuratively in the north). Racism and sexism were normative. The disabled were kept far away from the rest of us. We claimed to have homogeneity, but we achieved that by denying any evidence of diversity.

In his defense of the banner, talk show host John DePetro repeatedly insisted that since the banner had been in the gym for fifty years and no one had complained, there was no reason to remove it now. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Amy Levin, of Temple Torat Yisrael in Cranston, presents a very different picture when she talks about discussing the banner with members of her congregation who attended Cranston West when the banner was first put on the wall. She recalls,

“I asked them how they had felt as Jewish students sitting in the auditorium with the prayer banner on the walls. They told me that they felt uncomfortable, that their parents felt uncomfortable with the prominently-displayed school prayer in the room in which the school assembled. They told me that in the 1960s, their parents were afraid to speak about against the presence of that school prayer. Fifty years later, Jessica has given public voice to the discomfort of generations of students who came before her. She has voiced concerns that those parents were hesitant to raise fifty years ago. She has been subjected to the treatment that others feared to bring upon themselves.”

This isn’t about faith and prayer. It’s about nostalgia and conformity. Those values may feel comfortable and desirable, but they are not Christian.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Birth Control and the Catholic Church

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.Deuteronomy 30:11-15a
Recently I found myself in the odd position of agreeing with the Roman Catholic Church on an issue related to birth control. I planned to write a blog in support of the Catholic hospitals and universities objecting to the government mandate, issued by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a practicing Roman Catholic, requiring them to provide free prescription birth control for all employees.

But two things happened as I headed down that road.

First, I thought about it.

And second, I did some research.

First, the thinking part.

From a Christian perspective, the Catholic Church has the high moral ground on the issue of abortion, just as the pacifists have the high moral ground on issues of war and peace. Those of us who defend a woman’s right to choose an abortion have to do some mental gymnastics to construct a Christian argument. We can get there, but we have to do some significant “work arounds.”

Birth control is another matter. The Catholic objection to birth control is that it contradicts the biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” and that the purpose of sex is procreation. This comes across as a mean spirited demand that you don’t have a right to enjoy the pleasure of sex unless you are willing to accept the responsibility of taking care of however many children such pleasure might produce. But it’s worse than that, because the church doesn’t really recognize the pleasure part as having any value at all. They affirm the intimacy of sexual relations only in the context of procreation.

The objection is biblically, theologically, and morally flawed. And almost no one agrees with the Catholic Church on this. A recent poll showed that 98% of all Roman Catholic women had used birth control.

And then the research part.

It turns out that twenty-eight states already have laws requiring Roman Catholic hospitals and universities, like other religious and secular institutions, to have health insurance coverage for prescription birth control. And in December 2000, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that failure to provide such coverage violates the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. And those determinations have already been tested in the courts and ruled constitutional. Most employers are already required to provide that coverage in their health plans.

What is new is the requirement that birth control prescriptions be provided without a co-pay or any other additional cost to the employee. So the whole argument comes down to the co-pay.

For employees at the lower end of the pay scale, the co-pays are significant. For employers, the co-pays actually reduce overall health-care costs by preventing complicated and unwanted pregnancies.

The problem with the co-pay from the perspective of Catholic hospitals and univesities is that without a cost to the employee they believe they are actually buying the contraceptives, rather than allowing the employee to buy them at a reduced cost.

The reality is that women who have access to birth control are healthier than those who do not. That sounds pro-life to me.

At the same time, when the real disagreement is really so small, I wish it had been handled with more sensitivity.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Winning, Losing and What Really Matters

All who pass along the way clap their hands at you;
they hiss and wag their heads at daughter Jerusalem;
“Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty,
the joy of all the earth?”
All your enemies open their mouths against you;
they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry:
“We have devoured her!
Ah, this is the day we longed for;
at last we have seen it!”
The LORD has done what he purposed,
he has carried out his threat;
as he ordained long ago,
he has demolished without pity;
he has made the enemy rejoice over you,
and exalted the might of your foes.
Lamentations 2:15-17
I could not read about the game this morning.

When my team wins, I read the sports pages as if they were sacred text. I look at all of the pictures. I read what the winners said and what the losers said. I look for the human interest stories. It is a salvation history. Even if my team was favored, it still seems like a miracle.

As I read the stories, I can see the game unfolding and I relive the best moments. And then I want to turn on ESPN and see the same plays over and over.

But when my team loses, the world is darkness and not light. I cannot read the commentary or watch the replays on television. And I cannot stand the preening of the victors.

All of this is crazy, of course. It’s just a game. And in spite of our pathological determination to make believe that the games are determined by character and skill, the truth is that the distance between victory and defeat is often more complicated than that.

Yesterday our Youth Group collected money for the annual “Souper Bowl of Caring,” a nationwide youth program that raises funds for community food banks and soup kitchens around the country. Yesterday they collected more than five hundred dollars, and they raised more than two thousand dollars by making and selling pizzas. It was a great effort.

Since the “Souper Bowl” program began twenty years ago, the organization has raised more than $80 million dollars. This sounds like a lot, until you compare it to the total amount spent on the game, which was estimated at over $11 billion. The total amount raised to feed hungry people over the past twenty years is less than 1% of the amount spent on the game this year.

And that puts the notion of winning and losing in a very different perspective.

Where is our sense of proportion?

I love football.

The Super Bowl is a bizarre event on many different levels. But that is not the point. The problem is not that we care too much about a game, but that we care too little about so many other really important things in the world. Hungry people are just a start.

Still, except for the final score, it was a great game.