The Common Good

The War on Religion is Bad for Religion

War on religion? Image via Wylio, http://bit.ly/yxkUUg.
War on religion? Image via Wylio, http://bit.ly/yxkUUg.

I’m not a fan of calling things wars that aren’t really wars. As soon as something is labeled a “war”, whether it be the “culture wars” or now the “war on religion,” we severely limit the ways we can move forward and solutions available to us. EJ Dionne in his column today at the Washington Post puts it this way:  

Politicized culture wars are debilitating because they almost always require partisans to denigrate the moral legitimacy of their opponents, and sometimes to deny their very humanity. It’s often not enough to defeat a foe. Satisfaction only comes from an adversary’s humiliation.

One other thing about culture wars: One side typically has absolutely no understanding of what the other is trying to say.

That is why the battle over whether religious institutions should be required to cover contraception under the new health-care law was so painful — and why it was so hard to comprehend why President Obama, who has been a critic of culture wars for so long, did not try to defuse this explosive question from the beginning.

The compromise that the Obama Administration crafted has been welcomed by some of the organizations the original rule would have affected the most including the Catholic Health Association, a trade group that represents Catholic hospitals. It ensures that faith-based groups like Catholic Charities and Catholic colleges do not have to pay for, provide or refer their employees for contraception coverage. This settles the issue for many. But why are there still some complaining so loudly?  

It is because they are at “war.”

They view those with whom they disagree with as “enemies” instead of… people with whom they disagree. The “war” isn’t so much about the issue at stake but about defeating the other side no matter what the cost. Even though religious liberty issues involved have been addressed, it is a “war” those critics want and it is a “war” they will continue to wage.

This comes at great cost. What is now being lost is a focus on true issues of religious liberty and the very definition of “religion” itself.

First, real issues of religious liberty are now being ignored. Entirely overshadowed this weekend was the story that yesterday (Feb. 12), nearly 70 churches were kicked out of the public schools that they were renting for a place to worship on Sunday morning. As someone who attends a Church that rents space from a school, I’m concerned for my fellow Christians in New York and the precedent it could set for my own Church community here in DC.

The New York state senate has taken action to pass an amendment that could block the evictions but the issue has not yet been resolved and unfortunately has been forgotten for one that better suited for fighting a partisan political “war.”

Second, the definition of “religion” is being lost. James defines pure and undefiled religion as this: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27, NRSV)

Over the past year, the House GOP has moved to cut funding for groups Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, World Vision and the Salvation Army. The “Circle of Protection” formed and united a broad swath of Christian leaders and organizations to defend the ability of these groups to do the work of pure and undefiled religion as James defines it. Dionne writes:

Liberal Catholics were proud to stand with conservatives in defending the church’s religious liberty rights in carrying out its social and charitable mission. Now, we’d ask conservatives to consider that what makes the Gospel so compelling — especially for the young, many of whom are leaving the church — is the central role it assigns to our responsibilities to act on behalf of the needy, the left-out and the abandoned.

Continuing the talking point of a “war on religion” might be good for political fundraising but it is bad religion.

With the release of the President’s budget today, there will likely be renewed efforts to cut funding for faith-based organizations who care for those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” Our focus should turn to smart solutions that will cut our countries long term debt while still ensuring that those in need aren’t left behind.

The careless use of the word “war” has set up enemy versus enemy in a battle to the death when there could be allies (even if tenuous ones) working towards a compromise. Instead, we have taken our eyes off of other pressing issues of religious liberty and done a disservice to the true definition of religion at the same time.

While James 1:27 speaks powerfully to this situation, so does the previous verse. “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”

As Christians, let’s try and not be worthless.

Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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