Religious Organizations and "Public Witness"

Janine Giordano Drake

A few weeks ago, Jon Stewart made the news with a pithy statement regarding the Catholic Church’s rejection of financial support for medical care they deem inappropriate. He said, “You’ve confused a war on your religion with not always getting what you want.” The statement stirred me for days, as it might have been uttered at any time in American history against any religious leader with a fair degree of temporal power. Over and over, Americans have dealt with the question of where to draw the line between the freedoms of individuals and freedoms of religious institutions. To what extent should a civic dedication to human rights supercede the rights of religious institutions to their own fiefdoms of temporal and spiritual power?

We can all think probably of a half dozen examples of this conflict within American history. We think of Southern Christian slaveholders’ defense of their theology of paternalism. We think of Margaret Sanger’s insistence that she spoke on behalf of Catholic women as much, or more, than the Bishops of New York.

The most vivid example that comes to my mind is Frances Willard’s crusade against churches for barring women from the pulpit, undermining women’s gifts for public work, and supporting the liquor industry. Some male clerics held that it was within their “religious freedom” to run the churches and administer the sacraments as they wished, but Willard insisted that this was not really a question of religious freedom, because she and her army of women were also Christians. To her and presumably many in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the problem of women’s underrepresentation within the ranks of formal religious leadership was a moral and political issue that Americans had to deal with outside the walls of political institutions because those controlling those political institutions were intractable. To Willard, the stodgy defense of patriarchy was hiding under claims to “religious freedom.”

Perhaps these sorts of questions are intrinsic to constitutional democracies with nominal freedom of religious worship. Once religions become institutions, they become vulnerable to a tyranny of the strong over “the weak.” When the weak want to see change, they appeal to their governments in their civic rather their religious identities. (Think of the abolitionists, the suffragists, the feminists, and I’d add—the Christian Socialists.) Religious leaders become inflamed that they are defending their religion as a solid American institution and reify their political statements as central to their theology. In response, “the weak” appeal to a higher law, and call it human rights or the Constitution. They are accused of being self-centered, secular humanists rather than truly devout, but insist that there is no other way to check the power of clergy in a constitutional democracy but through the power of civic participation. I imagine this political ballet will always be with us in the United States.

What most intrigues me about its most recent incarnation—debates over the Catholic Church’s right to not pay for birth control and abortifacients because they violate religious freedom—is the way it is now the leaders in Social Service and Social Gospel advocacy who are acting as tyrannical majorities. In the early twentieth century, what is today called “Catholic Charities” wanted to support the rights of the poor to health care, a living wage, and education, but they were not granted the authority by the Catholic Church to do so. Seeing this limitation, others—famously Father Peter Dietz—created organizations of lay working people to serve the same purpose, but they too were stopped from growing large because they were “not authorized” by the Catholic Church to speak on behalf of all Catholics.

These social justice advocates appealed for the help of human rights advocates in the civic realm (unions, Protestant social justice leaders, feminists, African American religious and civic leaders, ethnic societies, academics, and politicians) to gain a foothold both within the Catholic Church and ultimately within civic society. And they won. Today, Catholic social service agencies like Catholic Charities exercise enormous social and civic power and have become a metonymn for the Catholic Church. They are not only major employers and public service providers, but they manage many public funds in their capacity as defenders and stewards of human rights.

In recent Bishop statements, however, these Catholic social service agencies are an example of the religious witness of the Catholic Church. Wait. Can Catholic social service agencies have it both ways? Can a private, religious organization both manage social services on behalf of the public and also be immune from the checks and balances of that public which invested them with that worldly power?

In all these historical examples I can think of—the struggles of Frances Willard, Margaret Sanger, the abolitionists, etc—religious authorities with minority views ultimately lost out to those defenders of alternate Christianities and secular “human rights” because “the public” checked the degree to which their actions truly represented the interests of all the people they claimed to speak for. We could call this trend “secularization,” or even be dramatic and refer to it as the “exile of religion from public life.” We could claim that we have eroded the rights of religious authorities to exercise their prophetic voice in the public realm. Or, we might just call it evidence that groups of people in power with “old fashioned” perspectives like to call their beliefs “Religion.”

Many of the most respected, latter-day Social Gospel advocates of our generation are now insisting that the right of religious institutions to adjudicate public, social services however they please is the way religious folks exercise their religious freedom. Let us listen, for example, to a recent statement put forward by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, :

They said in a long statement on Feb 15:

In the West, certain religious beliefs are now regarded as bigoted. Pastors are under threat, both cultural and legal, for preaching biblical truth. Christian social-service and charitable agencies are forced to cease cooperation with the state because they will not bend their work to what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “dictatorship of relativism.” …

[Required support for birth control mechanisms and abortifacients] threaten the religious freedom of insurers, employers, schools, and other religious enterprises that conscientiously oppose contraception and abortion. Limiting conscience protections to those in religious institutions that serve only their own members, as some have proposed, criminalizes the public witness of religious organizations such as Catholic universities and other religious social welfare institutions.

In short, these “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” feel it undermines their religious freedom to be forced to comply with the demands of human rights advocates outside their church or subordinate within their hierarchies.

We’ve been through all this before. A hundred years ago, Catholics were protesting the overreaching power of Protestant schools, hospitals, and insurance companies in the civic realm. Protestants maintained that this was their “public witness,” even though Catholics held that nobody had the right to a public witness which overshadowed the right of others to follow their alternate Christian conscience. A few generations later, conservative Catholics and Evangelicals see themselves on a common platform with a similar “public witness.” Somehow, the “public witness” of Christians outside the halls of civic and social power is never given the credit it probably deserves.

There is great power in the United States invested in those who claim to speak prophetically on behalf of their religion (particularly when that religion is Christianity). There are many more protections, and I think more respect, afforded to religious institutions than there are to non-religious civic institutions. But, religious institutions with a civic purpose continue to forget that they would not be where they are without the cooperation of those outside their churches who believe in their ultimate causes. It was the support of people outside the Catholic Church hierarchy that ultimately convinced church leaders that Catholic Charities ought to grow and serve a civic purpose. For better or for worse, it is the people outside the Catholic Church hierarchy who will have the determining say in the limitations placed on that organization.


Curtis J. Evans said…
quite an interesting article with so many thoughtful reflections. I'm been thinking about a set of related issues from a rather safe historical distance while teaching a class on the Social Gospel. Something about your essay made me think of the more basic question about who or what groups are being "forced to comply with the demands" of other persons or groups and under what circumstances. When Walter Rauschenbusch in his "Christianizing the Social Order" (1912) tried to answer the question of what is implied by the title of his book, he wrote: "Christianizing the social order means bringing it into harmony with the ethical convictions which we identify with Christ." Obviously, there were those outside his imagined circle of "we" (even some fellow Christians!)who did not regard the ethical convictions of Jesus as demanding the kinds of reforms he deemed necessary to Christianize America's economic and social order. Nor was Rauschenbusch's rather easy-going attempt to distinguish his Christian plan for the social good from so many obviously coercive historial alternatives so evident as he seemed to think, as critics have noted, requiring at least some degree of coercion if codified into laws and regulations. My point is not to criticize or pick on Rauschenbusch, as I'm quite sympathetic to much of his work, but rather to raise some questions about how religious groups and secular alternatives (for lack of a better expression) perhaps need to be more self-aware of how coercion and limitations on the rights of others (in a relative sense) are constitutive features of, as you put it, "constitutional democracies with nominal freedom of religious worship." No one can escape some degree of infringement. This is not suggested as a "solution" to the issues you raise, but a minor reflection on the complicated ways these kinds of competing demands force us to think about how futile or irresponsible it is to expect that every time "we" (whoever that might be) don't get our way we can render this defeat as an outright assault on all that we hold dear and noble. Just some random reflections. I'd say more, but I realize I'm taking up too much space for a post.
Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, and thanks for mentioning Rauschenbush. Here's my take on his work; I'd love to know what you and others think.

Rauschenbush worked in New York City alongside lots of working class Christians who were part of the Christian Socialist and socialist wings of the labor movement. He likely gleaned some of these ideas from these parishoners. After all, Christian Socialists had been saying the exact same sorts of things for at least forty years by the time 1912 came around and Rauchenbush published this book. But, Raushenbush gets nearly all the credit in our courses on the subject and our memory of "the Social Gospel" because when he said this, he spoke with the authority of the church.

So, this raises the question: where did those "ethical convictions which we identify with Christ" really come from? The socialist movement (labeled terribly secular!) or the Church? Do we call it "the Church" because Raushenbush was ordained, but the secular and civic sector when 1890s socialists say the same thing? (This is what my dissertation is about.)

I'd simply submit that there's no such thing as a hermetically sealed effort to Christianize the social order and bring it into harmony with the ethical convictions of Christ outside tremendous influences by outside cultural factors. I know this is an obvious point that most of us probably agree upon, but over and over, Christians in authority get to call their vision of how to do this "Religion" and their adversaries' visions "corrupted with worldly influences." That's how so many tried to shoot down Frances Willard and her effort to get women in the pulpit, etc...

Religious authorities of course are human, and have own their set of cultural/worldly influences. They often speak as if they have some kind of immunity from corruption by worldly influence, and judge those other Christians outside the churches (or their churches) as especially corrupted. But I'd submit that they are as influenced by the coercion of cultural and political influences as everyone else.

For example, I'd say that Catholic employers and insurance companies could strive to maintain their calling to protect life quite differently. They could charge us no copays for prenatal care, birthing, and raising babies, and instead spread that cost among everyone in the insurance pool. They could grant better benefits for maternity and paternity leave. After all, this is another expression of protecting life and after all, it takes the whole Body of Christ to raise a child.... The way they are currently striving to "protect life" has a long history--deriving from 1920s debates between NY bishops and Margaret Sanger, and 1960s-70s protests against Roe v. Wade, etc. It's historically embedded, and not simply a voice of prophecy wandering in the wilderness.

I very much agree that there is a lot of coercion on both sides here, but in my estimation, there always always has been...Christianity has not developed independently of culture and politics. And, if we want to live in a constitutional republic, we have to embrace that reality as citizens (and, for many of us, Christians).

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