The HHS mandate contradicts the Christian view of work

Jay W. Richards Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics
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The U.S. Supreme Court will begin to hear oral arguments concerning the constitutionality of the HHS mandate on March 26. That mandate compels private businesses to provide their employees with insurance plans that cover contraceptives, female sterilization, and abortion-causing drugs. In an effort to accommodate religious principles, the mandate exempts what it defines as religious entities. The justices should know that this “accommodation” is based on a theological premise that is utterly unworkable for orthodox Christians.

The HHS mandate boils down to this: unless you are doing really churchy work in a church for church folks, you will be forced to provide health insurance that provides contraceptives, including abortifacients, to your employees.

How churchy does the work have to be to qualify? The organization recently given a stay by the court gives us a hint: the Little Sisters of the Poor are Catholic sisters, but they are ministering to the elderly poor of diverse backgrounds, rather than to church parishioners exclusively. As a result, the sisters are expected to comply with the mandate.

If even the Little Sisters don’t qualify, there’s zero chance a Christian entrepreneur who starts a cake business is going to get an exemption just because she objects, on religious grounds, to providing certain contraceptives through her company’s insurance plan.

The Obama administration claims that insurance companies will provide this for free — thus removing any culpability from the objecting employer. The argument is risible and has received much-deserved criticism. Yet few have noticed the way in which the mandate directly contradicts the Christian theology of work.

The mandate assumes that there is a solid line between sacred, explicitly religious work in a religious setting, and “secular” work that takes place everywhere else. This might look like a nice way to resolve the dilemma: just build a wall between the sacred and the secular, and exempt the former, but not the latter. Historic Christian theology, however — whether Protestant or Catholic — has a different view.

Work, whether explicitly religious or not, is an expression of our nature as creatures made in the image of God. Work is part of God’s original blessing and command to our first parents. Adam and Eve were put in a garden, commanded to “tend and keep it,” and told to have dominion (that is, be good stewards) over the earth. This original command to work took place before the fall into sin.

This biblical view of the dignity of work, including manual labor, is unique among the major threads of western culture. The ancient Greek and Roman cultures saw labor, particularly manual labor, as fit for slaves but not for citizens.

Although this theology of work has always been in danger of being eclipsed, it is firmly anchored in Church history. The motto of the ancient Benedictine order is “Ora et labora”: pray and work. The Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin emphasized the “priesthood of all believers” and denied a stark dividing line between private worship and public work.

The Catholic organization Opus Dei (“the work of God”), founded in the twentieth century, describes its purpose as helping “people seek holiness in their work and ordinary activities.” And today, there are dozens of Christian non-profits, including my own — the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE) — that emphasize the sacredness of work. According to the broad Christian tradition, then, church ministry can be a calling, but so too can banking or medicine or musical performance or coffee roasting or car manufacturing. If God has called you to a specific task and you pursue it with gusto, then your work is your spiritual calling.

A new video, “Freedom to Flourish,” produced by IFWE, underscores this point. “Our lives are not divided into two halves,” it begins, “with one part being sacred and another part secular. Worship is not reserved only for Sunday morning, but for Monday morning as well.”

It is precisely this idea that the HHS mandate denies and, in the process, denies freedom of religion in the robust sense that the American founders understood it.

There should be a freedom of conscience provision in the Affordable Care Act broad enough to include anyone with moral or religious objections to the contraceptive mandate. The mandate is especially unacceptable for Christians, however, because it violates a perennial theme of Christian theology: the inherent sacredness of work.

Jay W. Richards, PhD, is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE). IFWE is a co-signer of an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the HHS mandate.