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Divided and Conquered

By Martha Quillen

“So who do you think should make a woman’s reproductive decisions? Her husband and priest? Her state government? The U.S. Congress? Or Rick Santorum?” my husband quipped after we watched the Florida debate. At that point, the contest appeared to be between Gingrich and Romney, but Rick Santorum was on the news because he’d been declared the winner in Iowa a week earlier.

It didn’t seem as if Santorum’s candidacy could amount to much, though, since Santorum is against contraception for married and unmarried couples, which is a rather disconcerting position. And one would expect it to be an unpopular one, too. In fact, the U.S. birth rate hit an all time low in 2010 and has continued to decline, which suggests that citizens of child-bearing age (be they Democrats or Republicans) use contraception.

Santorum, however, has long maintained that states should have the power to outlaw the sale of contraceptives (and also outlaw abortion, gay partnerships, sex education, and the teaching of evolution).

Were he to win, Santorum would presumably not have the power nor inclination (because he believes in states rights) to outlaw contraceptives, but he would likely promote state and local efforts to ban birth control, and he could also appoint federal judges to further his crusade against the “dangers of contraception” – and all of those other horrors he thinks our states should suppress, including (but not limited to) adultery, sodomy, and premarital sex.

Where states would find the money for such drastic reform is a mystery, but one has to hand it to Santorum; it could definitely spur a massive jobs program. Just think of how many policemen, prison guards, attorneys, new prisons, new courtrooms, clerks, phones, and offices it would take to actually eliminate adultery and extramarital sex. Why, congress alone might require dozens of investigators.

It’s obvious why some Republicans favor Santorum; he’s clearly more sincere and consistent than Romney. But Santorum’s platform would be more appropriate for a papal candidate than a Presidential nominee. So imagine my surprise when he won in Colorado. Despite all of their talk about family, it never occurred to me that Colorado Republicans favored old-fashioned families with six or more children. How would Colorado feed, school, and eventually find employment for all of them?

Still, the idea of having such a youthful population is intriguing. Perhaps, a super-colossal baby blossom might prove even more world-altering than the last baby boom. But back in January, I thought that almost everyone, including Republicans, would be appalled by the idea of eliminating contraception. Given the personal and intimate nature of family planning, I assumed that people would agree that it was not something to be decreed by committee. Or majority vote.

Little did I realize that within a few weeks the list of who should control a family’s contraceptive choices would expand to include the Susan G. Komen foundation, the Catholic Church, and a woman’s employer.

“Her employer?” you ask.

Yes, her employer.

Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and our increasingly zealous evangelical Congressmen are now arguing that enterprises run by the Catholic Church (such as hospitals, schools, and day care facilities) should not have to provide an insurance package that includes contraception.

After years of arguing, grandstanding, derailing and otherwise obstructing any meaningful health care reform, House Republicans are once again vowing to jettison what little remains of the original idea that helped put Obama in the White House.

The church, according to Republican reasoning, should not have to fund activities that it deems morally and spiritually reprehensible. In fact, some Republicans claim, that would be unconstitutional. After all, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

And apparently the free exercise of the church is somehow hampered if employees of that church are allowed to spend their compensation for services rendered on things that the church doesn’t approve of. (Except, of course, when the church disapproves of wars and executions; in that case the church’s values are clearly faulty).

The real situation is far more complicated than that, but it’s not unprecedented, and one suspects it was not unanticipated by the Obama administration or Republican congressman or the church – because tax exemptions for religious sects “opposed to insurance” are already written into the IRS codes.

As everyone knows, churches are tax exempt, but such exemptions are not extended to church-controlled organizations that offer “goods, services, or facilities for sale, other than on an incidental basis, to the general public at other than a nominal charge …”

And the wages of employees in such organizations are generally subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes, but church-controlled organizations that are opposed to the payment of Social Security and Medicare taxes for religious reasons can elect to exclude their employees from coverage.

If that happens, the workers have to pay self-employment taxes instead. But workers can also be exempted, provided they belong to a recognized religious sect that is opposed to insurance and they are conscientiously opposed to accepting benefits from any public or private insurance themselves (including Social Security and Medicare benefits). Buying any death, disability, retirement, or medical insurance makes them ineligible.

It’s not too surprising that Obama avoided establishing similar exemptions for our new health care policy because it could burden the little guy. But when the church and its supporters complained, Obama quickly offered a compromise. The church would pay only for non-contraceptive care and the insurance companies would assume the costs of covering contraceptive care, which apparently saves them money in the long run.

So all’s well that ends well, right?

Yes, except in political circles, where things never end well. In fact, very few controversies ever end at all. And you can be sure that this one won’t. The candidates will doubtlessly be clamoring about this until the polls open in November, and then they’ll be at it again in 2014.

The powers that be had to have known that this would come up, and they were doubtlessly all prepared to spin it to suit themselves. But this particular spat wasn’t about religious freedom; it was about haggling over who would pay for what. And whether the current solution holds or not, the church and the Obama administration will likely find a resolution that serves the financial and publicity needs of both.

But what about us? Will we ever find any resolutions? Or common ground?

When I look around me, here on the ground, as Colorado Central columnist George Sibley might say, I don’t see much difference between Republicans and Democrats. I can’t really tell which is which by their clothes, or cars, or homes, or hair color. Or by how many children they have, or how often they go to church. When I hear that someone is cheating on their spouse, or getting a divorce, or has been arrested for domestic abuse or drunk and disorderly conduct, I don’t automatically know whether that person is a Democrat, or Republican, or Libertarian, or none of the above. The only way I can tell is when our fearless leaders get us fighting about some crazy non-issue and we all start complaining about those lazy, godless, liberal shirkers. Or those greedy, bigoted, right-wing Neanderthals.

Today, shop clerks and factory workers who can barely hold onto their homes and are terrified of losing their jobs pay a higher tax rate than Mitt Romney. The working class’ share of the pie has been declining for forty years. Fraud, corruption and unscrupulous business practices are rampant. Our water supply is befouled with plastics, oil, and fracking chemicals. And what’s the big issue? Whether conservatives can tolerate living in a country where gays serve in the military and same-sex couples sleep together.

But guess what? Homosexuals have always been in our barracks, schools and churches. Always. And forcing them to hide in closets and live lies isn’t virtuous, it’s cruel.

American democracy is reliant on the notion that people of different backgrounds and beliefs can be active participants in their government and live peaceably together, with liberty and equality. But in recent years our representatives have been castigating half of us and promising the rest they’ll fix us. And that’s driving us apart.

Big business, big money, and huge lobbies have seized control of our democratic process. And if we keep focusing on our differences rather than our common needs and humanity, Congress will keep serving those power-brokers first and foremost – because they have the money, and we’re too divided to have the numbers.


Martha Quillen of Salida has grown weary of political attempts to legislate evangelical tenets, and hopes someday soon to see a ballot free of personhood amendments and defense of marriage propositions.