A few weeks back President Obama announced, and a few days later backtracked on, a policy requiring employers to pay for sterilization services and contraception (including the 'morning-after' pill considered by many pro-lifers to be a form of abortion) as part of the minimum provisions of health care services. It isn't clear whether this was a calculated political move designed to motivate particular constituencies, or a naïve administrative blunder in the implementation of "Obama-care," but the media sandstorm and quick reversal indicates that it didn't work out quite as planned. With the hyper-partisanship engendered by "life issues," and headlines suggesting the President is waging a "war on religion," it is easy to understand why the President's political advisors counselled a retreat.
What was overlooked in much of the coverage, however, was what the policy demonstrated about our understanding (or lack thereof) of the connection between religion and the public good—and how that connection is often expressed through institutions.
The Economist, hardly a newspaper one expects to be leading the charge on these issues, astutely commented:
America is lucky to possess alongside its public institutions a rich ecosystem of hospitals, universities and schools that are largely secular in function and serve all faiths, but are animated by a religious vocation. Why punish them? It cannot be beyond the wit of man to give their employees access to contraception without making the employers trample deeply held beliefs by paying directly.
Contemporary public discourse in North America mistakenly marginalizes religion. Our most basic error is considering religion as something that is private in nature. Without diving into technical and philosophic debate about different conceptions of religion, surely we can, in our public discourse, get past the notion that private beliefs lack public consequences? Our most deeply held beliefs shape our priorities, and our view of our neighbours and our responsibilities toward them.
This is often expressed not only in the behaviours of individuals but also of groups. Most obvious are the desires of explicitly religious groups to live out their faith, whether that be through the service of God and neighbour through helping those in need, creating works of beauty and art, or spreading the word to people who have not yet heard the good news. That institutions like hospitals and universities often are formed out of religious motivation is no surprise. It is only a secular amenesia of unthinkable proportions that would ignore the history which shows it has long been so.
The miscalculations of Obama and his team are but a small manifestation of an assumption we would all do well to leave behind. Religion may be personal but it isn't private. In fact, it is a public good that makes our society livable and humane, and a resource that is neglected at our peril.