Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Contraception, Jewish Deli, and the Right to Be a Bully

I have heard a single analogy multiple times from conservative Catholics who are trying to defend the stripping of health care benefits from Church-employed workers.  You wouldn't support a law forcing a Jewish deli to sell pork, they argue, so you shouldn't be able to force the Church to pay for health care that includes access to birth control.  The argument by analogy here is fallacious on several different levels.  Let's set them out.

First of all, it is factually wrong.  If you want a ham sandwich, go to a Jewish deli for an overstuffed one.  They will be happy to sell it to you.  Jewish dietary laws not only forbid pork, but also mixing milk and meat at the same meal, yet any Jewish deli you go to will gladly sell you a Reuben, a sandwich of corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese.  It isn't kosher despite the fact that it has a Jewish name, but every deli serves it with pride.

Second, the metaphor fails because Jews do something many Christian refuse to, they admit the distinction between theology and morality.  I worked for my uncle when I was in high school.  My Jewish uncle had a pork stall in Lexington Market in Baltimore, a business he inherited from his Jewish in-laws.  We sold ham, bacon, pig ears, tails, brains, fatback,...if it came from a pig, it was sold at Esta's.  Despite the fact that we were Jewish, we did not think ill of our customers for their different choice.  They weren't bad people for eating pork, they were just not observant Jews.

Contraception may be contrary to the theology of the bishops, but that does not make it immoral.  Morality is something we all own, it doesn't belong to just you.  When I tell my son that a certain behavior is immoral, I have reasons.  Maybe it causes unnecessary pain.  Maybe it affects the character of the person acting.  Maybe it shows a lack of care or violates someone's rights.  But it is something that we can talk about rationally and that could be challenged on rational grounds and that we could talk about passionately, but rationally with people of any background or creed.

It highlights a major difference between Judaism and Catholicism that undermines the effectiveness of the analogy.  Judaism is a tribal religion.  You are Jewish by birth.  You are born into the tribe. This tribal origin presupposes an us/them dichotomy.  If you are distinguished as a member of the tribe, it implicitly asserts that there is a world of people not in the tribe.  You are in a group that is different from that group. Our group does things they don't and refuses to do some things they do.  It doesn't make us better or right, it just makes us, us.  It is about action, about doing what we do.  They are the ten commandments, not the ten axiomatic propositions.

Christianity, on the other hand, is an evangelical post-Greek religion.  It is about belief (a Greek concept) and about recruitment.  A radical brand of your theology is about command and control of the souls of others.  Some of you think you think you have THE way and that is necessary and sufficient  for being a good person.  No other way is acceptable or possible.  As such, extremist versions of your theology doesn't allow the room in which ethical discourse exists, the space in which we see value in conflicting approaches and have to figure out which is best.

My Christian friends, have you ever noticed that no Jew has ever tried to convert you?  Isn't that interesting?  It doesn't bother them that you are who you are and eat what you eat.  No Jew has ever tried to get a law passed here that bans you from eating pork or keeps stores closed on Saturdays (although those might more appropriately be called blue laws...).  That's because there is a difference between religious commands and universal ethics.  That difference undercuts the contraception/Jewish deli analogy at its root.

Finally, will you please stop trying to use us as rhetorical pawns in your bid to strip the rights of non-Catholics?  It is unseemly.  Especially given the history, both ancient and recent.  Along those lines, please, please, please stop invoking Hitler in your discussions of the topic.  Do not compare yourselves to Holocaust victims.  Really, just stop.

If you want to use a misplaced, hyperbolic, inappropriate historical reference, at least use one you own.  Say that it is like the Inquisition where you were forced by those inconsiderate Jews to create new and more horrible torture techniques because they too were denying your religious freedom by refusing to convert to Catholicism.  They objected to coerced conversion, something that your Church leaders said was a part of your religion and which they resisted.  That resistance was a denial of religious freedom just as much as forcing you to allow non-Catholics to choose their own health care options.

The Jewish deli analogy is faulty.  But if you want one that works, it would be that Catholic employers denying contraceptive care to their workers would be like the owner of a Jewish deli getting to tell his non-Jewish employees that they could not use their paycheck to buy any part of their Easter ham.  He keeps kosher and so you cannot use the compensation you've earned in the way you choose, but because the money had crossed his hands, you are now bound to use in ways he would.  Health benefits are part of the compensation you get for working, just like a paycheck.  It is the employee's property, not the employer's.  She has earned it.  It is of no business what she chooses to do with it, even to the business who paid her.

What you are demanding is not religious freedom, but the freedom to be a bully.  Just because you want to make converts does not mean you get to decide what people do or do not do in terms of family planning.  I do have the right to swing my fist as I choose, but that right does end at my neighbor's nose.  Similarly, you do have right to practice your religion as you choose, but that right ends at your employee's body.  The bully swings his fist into the nose of his neighbor and enforces his own theology on the body of his employee.

So, my conservative Catholic friends, if you really want to model things on a Jewish deli, give your employees an overstuffed benefits package with contraceptive care if they choose, a pickle spear, and a Dr. Brown's black cherry soda.  Trust me, everyone will be happier and nothing immoral will have happened.