One of my favorite Thomas Jefferson stories, with which I have amused a couple of generations of my students, involves a giant wheel of cheese. In December of 1801 the Baptists of Chesire, Massachusetts, sent what was to be called “The Mammoth Cheese” to the nation’s new capitol, Washington. The cheese was so large – a symbolic thirteen feet in circumference – that it would not fit into normal drays and had to be moved by hastily constructed sleighs and ultimately by ship.
The cheese reached Washington on the evening of December 29th and President Jefferson officially received it on New Year’s Day, 1802. Students love this story. I usually get a good chuckle from them when I note that by the time the cheese got to Baltimore reporters claimed it was so ripe that could probably walk the rest of the way to Jefferson on its own. I raise the story here, though, for a more serious purpose. Did I forget to mention that emblazoned on the cheese were the words, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”?
Not coincidentally, New Year’s Day, 1802 – the day of the Mammoth Cheese – is the day Jefferson wrote his famed letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he invoked the image that has become iconic in America’s understanding of the relationship between government and religion. He wrote…
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
So, the giant cheese and its emblazoned message are background to Jefferson’s famous argument for a wall between church and state.
The Baptists in 1802 were a persecuted minority religion in America. In New England, where the giant cheese was pressed, government – backed by Congregationalist majorities – was intruding on Baptist efforts to proselytize and even to perform baptisms. Government was trying to define what counted as religion and interfering in the free practices of religion. The wall that Jefferson speaks of in his letter to the Baptists was not understood in the way often presumed today: not understood as a wall to protect the government from religion. Jefferson understood that wall, understood the 1st Amendment’s religion clauses, as primarily there to protect religion from governmental intrusion.
A few weeks ago, on January 20th, Americans saw an overreach on the part of the Obama administration that endeavored to define what counts as religion in a way that intruded on religious work. That January 20 narrow rule on the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate would have required Catholic charities, schools, hospitals, and so on to facilitate something contrary to faith. Something like the motto on Jefferson’s cheese pricked Catholic sensibilities across the political spectrum in response. Catholic political progressives like me stood shoulder to shoulder with Catholic conservatives and with every American Catholic bishop demanding a fix. Like the Baptists of two centuries ago, in solidarity we saw this as government inference in the work of our Church. A political firestorm flared, as well.
By last Friday the administration had had enough and it moved to accommodate our demands for protecting the religious liberty of Catholic institutions. President Obama on Friday morning announced new regulatory language that shifted the mandated contraception coverage from religious institutions to insurance companies. As a result of Friday’s shift, Catholic institutions will no longer have any role in providing that coverage.
We should welcome this new language. Whatever we may think about contraception, American Catholics have been paying for it for many decades. Our taxes and FICA withholdings fund it for the military, in insurance for government employees, and in Medicaid, just as we pay for wars that we believe are unjust and for wrongful executions. We’re told however that it is not immoral for us to pay taxes for such things because of the distance between what we pay and these policies. Having insurance companies pay for contraception, indeed, distances Catholic institutions from the coverage even more than the situation with taxes.
This is not to say that Friday’s decision is not without a bug. A handful of Catholic institutions have self-funded plans, wherein they are their own insurer. Friday’s language does not address such cases. That needs to be fixed, perhaps by grandfathering institutional exemptions to the mandate for such plans. The administration has telegraphed that addressing this problem is a priority.
Yet, while most Catholic progressives find Friday’s shift by the administration to have largely resolved the problems that the January 20th rule engendered, Catholic conservatives do not. After initially welcoming Friday’s language, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) later also decided to say that the new language was insufficient. Indeed, conservatives and the USCCB now are demanding from the administration not merely exemptions from the contraception mandate for religious institutions, but the total elimination of the contraception mandate for health insurance generally. I think this newly-emphasized demand risks much for Catholic concerns.
Demanding total elimination of the contraception mandate transforms the issue from one of religious liberty for church institutions to one about contraception itself. The vast majority of Americans understand contraception as health care—in the same way that they think about blood transfusions as health care. For them, it’s one thing if a church institution wants to be exempt from public health laws, but it’s another if Taco Bell wants exemptions from health laws. Moreover, in the vitriolic contentiousness of election year politics, all objective observers acknowledge that the demand for elimination of the mandate has no chance of success on Capitol Hill or of being approved by the White House. Most importantly, though, it’s worth remembering that Jefferson understood his wall to protect churches and church institutions from government intrusion into their internal practices. It’s “Church & State” not employer and state.
The victory that Catholic progressives, conservatives, and bishops won on Friday was a miracle that should encourage all sides. It was the best that could be achieved in the present political environment, protecting the liberty of Catholic institutions to be Catholic. Despite bugs yet to work out, this is a victory for all to savor. I invite Catholic progressive, conservatives, and our bishops to join me in a plate of celebratory cheese.