02/08/2013 10:43 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Is Birth Control Fight Really About Religious Freedom?

The Obama administration has now gone a step farther to address religious freedom objections to contraceptive provisions under the health-care reform law, creating, through new rules issued last week, a way for employees of religiously affiliated organizations to access birth control without their employers getting their hands dirty.

Given the swift and hostile reaction by many in the Christian right gallery, you have to wonder why the president and his people bothered extending this olive branch. Has it ever been clearer that the culture warriors are more interested in a fight than a compromise solution, or that complaints about religious freedom under attack are greatly overblown?

After the Department of Health and Human Services announced the new rules, leading conservative Catholic voices had the decency to say, in effect: Give us a chance to study the new provisions, and then we'll let you know whether they address our concerns. Fair enough. (One week later, the Catholic Bishops rejected the compromise as inadequate, albeit in measured tones and with acknowledgement of partial progress in addressing their concerns.)

If only groups such as the American Life League could likewise pause and assess before erupting in the predictable cries about religious freedom under attack. The Obama administration continues "to treat our country's conscience like a jailor," railed Judie Brown, president of the American Life League. Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, demanded that the administration "immediately abandon the idea that it has the power to withhold or dispense our fundamental freedoms to whomever it chooses."

Not even a thank-you-for-trying?

Several aspects of this conflict are no doubt mystifying to those outside the circle of social and religious conservatives. Contraceptives are widely used and accepted in American culture -- by Christians and non-Christians alike -- and they are proven preventatives against abortion, which the Obama critics are fighting mightily to prevent. Why the fuss?

That's not the point. Religious freedom matters a great deal under our Constitution, and it's not my call, or yours, to say whether a given law or practice is, or is not, a religious freedom issue for a given organization or person. If religious conservatives say that the contraception coverage violates their consciences, then it does.

If the objectors can be believed, that is. The problem here is that the Christian right has cried so loud and long about its religious liberties being violated -- and in such self-serving ways -- that it's difficult to trust that the continued opposition to the ObamaCare contraception rules is more than ax-grinding and fight-picking.

When the argument broke out anew at the end of last week, it was against the backdrop of a revealing a new survey by the Barna Group, highlighting what the polling firm's Christian president terms a "double standard" when it comes to evangelicals and religious freedom. Barna found 71 percent of evangelicals are "very concerned" about religious freedoms becoming more restricted in the coming years, as opposed to 29 percent of adult Americans overall.

But what evangelicals call an erosion of religious freedom begins to look like something else when you consider this: The Barna survey finds a majority of evangelicals agree that Judeo-Christian values should be given preference in this country, and only 37 percent agree that "no one set of values should dominate." These Christians, Barna President David Kinnaman says, seem as interested in dominance as religious freedom. Says Kinnaman: "They cannot have it both ways."

No, they can't. The data give statistical heft to what has been increasingly obvious over years of culture war politics: Conservative Christian cries of "religious liberty" violations often are, in truth, complaints about the decline in conservative Christian power and prerogatives in an America that is growing ever more religiously diverse.

Seen this way, the cries about Obama and a war on religious freedom, and laments about an America in which traditional Christians are on the run and under attack, sound hyperbolic and belligerent. Evangelical theologian Paul Louis Metzger hits the nail on the head when he points out, as he did this past week in a article, that "if we evangelical Christians want religious freedom, we will need to champion the religious freedom of others, even if we disagree with them on their views, and even if it means that they will critique us with that freedom."

Only when partisan evangelicals earn a reputation for sincere regard for religious freedom -- for all people's religious freedom -- will complaints about non-evangelical presidents and their supposed assaults on liberty ring credible.

Originally published at

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and the author of the new book The Evangelicals You Don't Know, to be released in April.