The Obama administration's pressure on religious institutions to provide what are euphemistically called "reproductive services" has caused a well-deserved uproar, but it's far from revolutionary.
Here's what happened: A long-standing social/political undercurrent suddenly overflowed its banks and doused the unsuspecting with cold water. For years, the general assumption has been that private religious beliefs should not influence public policy. Like most general assumptions, it's true to a point. But determining where the point is has become increasingly problematic.
In universities across the country, student groups are beginning to deal with the fallout from the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. This decision denies the right of student organizations in public universities to set guidelines for leadership-meaning, a Christian group that bars an atheist or pagan or gay-rights activist from voting or holding office within the group can be legally challenged. Perhaps the five justices in the majority didn't see a problem: Why would an atheist even want to join a Christian group? For them, equal access trumps freedom of association.
But in the real world, an adversary has ample reason to infiltrate and undermine an enemy organization-Satan does it all the time. And as Christians are not exactly the most admired and protected constituency on campus, Martinez makes them especially vulnerable. Nevertheless, last fall, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., announced an "all-comers" policy for student organizations, and failure to comply would mean forfeiting RSO (recognized student organization) status.
This was overreach, since the Martinez ruling applies only to public universities, and Vanderbilt is private. After months of evasion, officials finally agreed to hear complaints on Jan. 31. The turnout probably surprised them; students had to be turned away for lack of space, and the 90-minute meeting stretched to three inconclusive hours. But it did clarify one thing, as evidenced by an exchange between Provost Richard McCarty and a student member of Christian Legal Society (see video clip below).
After trying to persuade the student that an unbeliever should be given a chance because "maybe it's a person who is amazing at social outreach," McCarty went on to explain: "I'm a Catholic. What if my faith beliefs guided all of the decisions I make from day to day?" The audience responded affirmatively, but McCarty countered: "No they shouldn't! No they shouldn't! … As a Catholic, if I held that life begins at conception, I'd have a very big problem with our hospital. Right? Would I not? [Vanderbilt Hospital performs abortions.] I would, but I don't. … We don't want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision-making on this campus. They can guide your personal conduct, but I'm not going to let my faith life intrude."
There it is: "faith life" shall not "intrude" on decision-making. Not at Vanderbilt, not at Health and Human Services, not at any institution that takes public money. But faith always intrudes, whether one's faith is in Jesus Christ or a political ideology-we all act out of our deepest convictions. The only question is which convictions will prevail.