While religious congregations of poor people get evicted from New York City public schools in the name of throwing up the barriers between church and state, President Obama is bending to forces that want to tear those barriers down. On Friday, he backtracked on his original proposal requiring religiously-affiliated businesses to pay for birth control services as part of their employees’ health insurance package. Instead, he proposed that the insurance companies pay for those services themselves.
This is, of course, a political move on the president’s part. The original proposal stirred up religious conservatives who balked at the idea of businesses being forced to cover services they consider morally wrong. He did this despite the fact that his poll numbers among Catholics were little impacted by the controversy. The vast majority of Catholics that oppose Obama have most likely always done so, while the same can be said for the Catholics that support him. Bending to his opponents in this way will not bring them over to his camp. There is probably little he can do on any front to bring them over. If history is any guide, Christian fundamentalists of all stripes: Catholic, Protestant and Mormon, are the most intractably conservative voters around. Obama once again finds himself pandering to the other party’s base.
The pollsters have made entirely too much of how this issue might impact Obama’s support among Catholics. Within that group of Catholics is a wide swath of Hispanics, America’s largest immigrant group. They support Obama not because of religion, but because Hispanic immigrants (not to mention immigrant groups stretching back to the days of Andrew Jackson) have traditionally supported the Democratic Party. Catholics who oppose Obama on purely religious grounds do so because they have always opposed the Democratic Party. This explains why Obama’s poll numbers in the Catholic community have remained relatively static throughout this entire controversy.
Like abortion, this really should be a non-issue. This is not about religion. It is about women being able to have control over their own bodies. While certain businesses might have religious affiliations, this does not mean all of their employees share those affiliations. Obama’s detractors really want businesses to be able to use their power as employers to make religiously-motivated decisions about the healthcare coverage of the people they employ. Considering many of these institutions are providing healthcare because of “Obamacare” (a federal law that uses federal funds), this really would constitute a violation of church/state separation.
The irony should not be lost on anyone. Poor people in New York City get their congregations evicted from public school buildings and the Catholic Church is nowhere to defend them. Wealthy employers want the right to use federal money to deny birth control to their employees on religious grounds (on what other grounds can you reject someone’s access to birth control?) and the Catholic Church is in their corner. While it is unlikely the religious conservatives will get their way on this issue, the controversy surrounding it points to a larger problem of just how tyrannical the American workplace has become over the past 35 years.
Thanks to the erosion of labor unions and OSHA laws, employers have been accustomed to wielding the type of power over their employees rivaled only by the sweatshop owners of the late 1800s. They can hire and fire at will, institute mandatory overtime and employ illegal immigrants who they use and abuse with little oversight. (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed is a particularly great book on this matter). The fact that people like Rand Paul can even comfortably broach the issue of repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under the guise that it violates the rights of business owners, proves how high the tide of employer power has risen.
Supporters of these policies are careful to use the language of free markets, tying the freedom of business owners to do as they please to some vague notion of American liberty. In reality, the increasing power of the American employer has been used as the battering ram to destroy all of the gains workers have won during the Progressive Era and the New Deal, not to mention the gains of individual citizens during the Civil Rights Era. This is what the Reagan Revolution was all about. It is a testament to the absolute victory of this Revolution that both Republicans and Democrats have been on board, and remain on board, in the destruction of the American citizen and worker.
And on no single issue are Democrats and Republicans more in agreement than education reform. Despite Obama’s attempts to distance himself from the No Child Left Behind law of his predecessor, his Race to the Top program is merely NCLB on steroids. States can only opt out of NCLB’s requirements if they institute, among other things, more charter schools. As Norm over at Ed Notes reminds us today, charter schools provide the same sort of tyrannical workplace found throughout the rest of the economy. They are privately run (non-profits are a boom industry, despite their benign designation) and require their staff to work long hours for less money than their counterparts in public schools. Just like the rest of the private sector today, there are no unions to prevent any of this from happening. This tyranny reaches down to the ranks of the children, who are counseled out of charter schools if they prove too difficult to educate. It is the trademark of the Reagan Revolution: hand over more power to private entities that have no obligation to respect the rights of workers or their patrons. In this way, all of the democratic gains of the past 100 years vanish.
That is why public sector unions are so important. They are the last rampart against the destruction of all of these hard-won gains. When unions like our own United Federation of Teachers roll over and play dead, they disappoint the entire American workforce, public and private. This demonstrates the need for public sector unions to be militant. Just as the pro-private sector policies of the Reagan Revolution have thrown the country back 100 years, unions also need to reset themselves 100 years. Those were the days when the International Workers of the World (“The Wobblies”) were not afraid to meet the intractable demands of management with the intractable demands of the working class. It was their activism, as well the activism of countless groups like them, that forced government to institute the worker protections of the Progressive Era and the New Deal. What the unions of today need, every single one of them, is a coup d’état that wrests control away from the comfortable functionaries who have made themselves fat from making concessions to the demands of the Reagan Revolution. In their place, we need a cadre of leaders who militantly defend every last right workers today still have while ruthlessly fighting to regain all of the rights we have lost.
The entire birth control controversy in which the president has been mired is about a whole lot more than the separation of church and state. It touches upon issues of workplace tyranny that this country has yet to face honestly.