Plural Sovereignty for the Common Good: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Social Question Today

Article excerpt

Against an abstract and unreal theory of State omnipo- tence on the one hand, and an atomistic and artificial view of individual independence on the other, the facts of the world with its innumerable bonds of association and the naturalness of social authority should be generally recog- nized and become the basis of our laws, as it is of our life (Figgis 1907).

legal and political conflicts concerning religious freedom are on the rise in the United States. One recent example is the 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. EEOC, in which the justices unanimously rejected Obama administration arguments for limiting the "ministerial exception" that allows churches and other faith-based bodies to make employment decisions without constraints from federal anti-discrimination law. Another example is a series of conflicts involving state- or municipal- level gay adoption policies. Unable to comply with new rules requir- ing acceptance of gay couples in adoption and foster care programs, Catholic Charities has effectively been forced to close down its adoption and foster care services in Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and the state of Illinois. Most recently, church leaders and leaders of reli- gious social service institutions have waged a fairly massive political war of attrition against the Obama administration's mandate for cover- age of contraception and related services in employer health plans.

In many respects, these recent conflicts simply extend the legal and political battle lines that were drawn more than a decade earlier with the launching of President George W. Bush's "faith-based initia- tive" in 2001, his controversial policy to enlarge and protect the role of faith-based service providers in the federal social safety net (Daly 2009, chap. 1). The key concern uniting these examples and others in recent years is that religious institutions are losing their identity and losing ground for their beliefs and, as a result, losing their freedom in a context where fulfilling their social service missions is increasingly intertwined with and oriented by state objectives, public spending, and social policy. Or put another way, as the state has expanded its role in social policy and its fiscal reach in previously church-led areas of social assistance, reconciling this public absorption of the social safety net with the religious freedom of faith-based social-service providers is increasingly challenging. The situation is especially challenging, some argue, because the fiscal power of the state essentially forces faith- based providers to participate in the public systems.

This much is fairly clear in the public debate. But to my mind, a deeper series of questions follows: Why, in an era of extreme and grow- ing inequality, sharpening differences in well-being and security, and massive disempowerment, isolation, and illness in many communities; why in an era of ever-encroaching markets and market mentalities in virtually all spheres of life, including family life, the natural world, and even our own bodies and genetic codes; why in an era of ever-larger yet increasingly divided and unresponsive government-why, amid all of these related disturbing trends and how they all seem to bear on our social nature, on how we live together in valued ways with common ends in a limited world-why, now, is it notable, and important, that today's resurgent church-state conflicts mainly center around not individual religious liberty in the classical First Amendment sense but rather the institutional freedom of religion, the freedom of religious bodies as shaped by collective traditions? The answer can be grasped, I believe, if we look at an important overlapping development in our politics: the growing influence of social-pluralist thinking and related confessional ideas of the state that we have inherited through our more conservative church traditions, particularly those of Roman Catholicism and Dutch Calvinism. …