Well, as with most important discussions, the media had passed on to other things (‘Did you see what J Lo wore to the Oscars?!’) and the argument between Church and State about birth control and health care had been pushed to a back burner.
Or it was about to be. Thanks to Rush Limbaugh it’s once again front and center. Who knew Rush could be a force for unification… Church and State agree on something, if only that Rush Limbaugh should be bound, gagged, and dragged off the airwaves.
It started when Sandra Fluke, a self-proclaimed activist for “reproductive justice” made some comments about her cause: “I attend a Jesuit law school that does not provide contraceptive coverage in its student health plan. And just as we students have faced financial, emotional, and medical burdens as a result, employees at religiously-affiliated hospitals and institutions and universities across the country have suffered similar burdens.”
Her position, that female – presumably single – college students should have their contraceptives covered by their student health care plan, resulted in Limbaugh calling her a “slut.”
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have, rightly, given Rush the bum’s rush for his comments. His half-hearted apology to Fluke has been rejected, and his radio show sponsors are making like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
But none of this gets to the core of the discussion: Does government have the right to dictate to employers what health care measures they must pay for? Does religion have the right to dictate to government – or to their employees – what health care measures they will not pay for?
Let’s look at the first question, Does the government have the right to impose on employers? Of course it does. The government can impose pretty much anything it wants to. If the governed object, their remedy is to vote in a new government. But while the government governs, there is a social contract that the governed will obey.
In Jesus’ day, the Jewish nation was under occupation by Romans. A Roman soldier could grab the nearest Jewish man and demand that he carry something for him. Perhaps the Jew had very specific conscientious objections to supporting the Roman occupation. Could he refuse? Well, he could, but he probably wouldn’t like the consequences. Thus Jesus’ advice was, “If someone in authority shall compel you to convey his goods one mile, go with him two.” (Matthew 5:41)
What about our second question, though? Perhaps you are an employer with religious objections to contraception, abortion, blood transfusion, prescription medicines or psychoanalysis. Can you refuse the government’s mandate that you pay for these medical treatments for your employees? No. In fact, your refusal would be tantamount to forcing your religious beliefs on your employees. Rather, the shoe is actually on the other foot for a Christian.
A group of the Jews in Jesus’ day tried to get him into this self-same argument. That group was a political party referred to as the “Herodians.” They were neither Pharisees nor Sadducees (the Republicans and Democrats of the day). They disliked Roman rule, but neither did they believe in throwing off the Roman yoke in favor of a Jewish king in the line of David. They believed that Herod the Great – the guy who had murdered all the babies in Bethlehem around the time of Jesus’ birth – had been the greatest thing since corn flakes, and they wanted one of his descendants to rule over Judea. So, they supported the current Herod’s efforts to curry favor with Rome, hopeful that he might be given more territory, and more autonomy.
So, they slyly asked Jesus where he stood on the issue of paying tax to Caesar. They were for it, but knew that Jesus’ Jewish audience was against it. As Alfred Edersheim put it:
“There was a strong feeling in the land with which, not only politically but religiously, many of the noblest spirits would sympathize, which maintained that to pay the tribute-money to Caesar was virtually to agree to his royal authority, and so to disown that of Jehovah, who alone was Israel's King.”
Jesus’ famous answer, ‘Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God,’ (Mark 12:17) was not a compromise. As Edersheim put it, his answer “settles to all time and for all circumstances the principle underlying it. Christ's Kingdom is not of this world; a true Theocracy is not inconsistent with submission to the secular power in things that are really its own.”
So, what is “its own,” and what is God’s? Well, suppose that Roman soldier’s demand was, not that the Jewish man carry his groceries, but that the man carry his unit’s vexillum? Each unit of the Roman army had a flag or standard, a pole topped by a representation of something, such as an eagle, that identified the unit. (Similar to sports teams or military units nowadays calling themselves ‘The Eagles,’ or ‘The Bears,’ etc.) It was the rallying point for the soldiers in the heat of battle, but it was more than that, and far more than a mascot. It was treated as sacred, decorated with garlands and anointed with holy oil on special feast days, and jealously protected as if it were a god. It was given reverence similar to a national flag or regimental colors today. Most Jews, rightly, viewed such standards as disgusting violations of the commandment against idol worship at Exodus 20:4, ‘Thou shalt not make thyself any graven image, or any form of what is in the heavens above, or what is in the earth beneath, or what is in the waters under the earth.’
So, the principle Jesus laid out, of giving Caesar’s things to Caesar but God’s to God, would help a Christian decide what obedience he owes to the government, and where he must draw the line. If the government wants an employer to give an employee health benefits he gives them health benefits.
If the employee chooses to use those benefits for contraception or abortion, blood transfusion or psychoanalysis, hair implants or breast implants, that decision rests on the conscience of the employee, not the employer.The Church, or course, can't resist meddling in the consciences of individuals, just as they've been doing for thousands of years.
Now, if either the government or the Church wants to require an employer to display a flag, that’s a vexillum of a different color…
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