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We're No Angels: Americans, Church Doctrine, and the Pill

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What's all the fuss about Americans not following religious doctrine? Seriously, we all know that none of us dance and drink as passionately as Baptists. Few are as happy with the invention of the Pill as Catholics. Many seem grateful that Jesus' plea to help the poor is taken no more seriously than an Ogden Nash poem.

Oh, I have no doubt that Catholic Church leaders are quite frustrated that their flock no longer does what they are ordered to do by the self-regarding, closer-to-god Church hierarchy. And, it's probably true that Mormons are, as these things go, a little more obedient to doctrine, right down to their underwear, than members of most other faiths. Credit where credit is due.

Lurking behind the church/state controversy over the morally righteous effort to make contraceptives available to American women is the certain truth that even the most devout Catholics ignore the Church's medieval doctrine on this one. The controversy was truly like arguing about the number of angels on the head of a pin. There are no angels; there are no pins. Just pundits and panderers.

Denial may not be a river an Egypt, as the 12-steppers say, but it's broader than the Mississippi in America. If there's anything we do better than escaping religious doctrine, it's denying that we escape it.

Now, it must be admitted that many can get themselves into a snit when they discover that others have also sawed through the bars and run away across the fields. High-tailing it to freedom like the trio of convicts in O Brother Where Art Thou, they look over their shoulders and shout at the escapees behind them, "Get thee back to God's House, sinners!" Their indignation is born of two parents: seeing themselves unhappily mirrored in their doctrine-denying brethren makes their denial a little more difficult; and, they are worried about the lack of parking spaces near the bars, the dance halls, and the contraceptive-dispensing pharmacies.

Speaking of the Coen Brothers' O Brother, the scene where Delmar is saved by the preacher may be the most accurate portrayal of Americans and faith on film:

Delmar: Well, that's it, boys. I been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight and narrow from here on out. And heaven everlasting's my reward.

Everett: Delmar, what are you on about? We got bigger fish to fry.

Delmar: The preacher said all my sins is washed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.

Everett: You said you was innocent of that.

Delmar: Well, I was lyin'. And the preacher said that that sin's been washed away, too. Neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now.

Secretly, we're all thankful for the First Amendment's separation of church and state. God forbid (pardon the reference) that the State should enforce church doctrines under penalty of the criminal law. If we think we have a prison crisis now...

So what's behind all the hooting and hollering over the Obama Administration's contraception initiative? Why is it that even some progressive pundits are arguing for more deference to the Catholic Bishops on an issue that's not even about religious freedom, but women's health? I think it's because they feel we're not showing enough deference to pretense. That the health of American women would be put at risk by such deference is kind of beside the point to them.

I don't mean to in any way mock religion. Many - most - of us draw deep and abiding values from the faith traditions we were raised in or discovered on our own. I think humans come with a wonderful ability to look for answers beyond what's immediately at hand, and religions can facilitate that and a give us a sense of community, too.

But I do mean to mock those who argue that we must sacrifice women's health on the altar of a religious doctrine no one in America takes seriously. On the other hand, Republicans who think this is a viable wedge issue might discover it's a wedge between themselves and the rest of America. I'm tempted to say, go for it.

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