The pictures were not good. A bunch of dark suited clerics — men — talking about contraception and religious freedom. This was the picture from last week’s now infamous hearing by the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform led by Rep. Darrell Issa. It wasn’t that committee member Rep. Justin Amash didn’t try to help. He had brought along Dr. Laura Champion, Medical Director of Health Services at Calvin College, but she spoke in a second panel, roundly ignored by the media.
Of course, it was not mystery why a Republican hearing would welcome testimony from Dr. Champion; she provided relief from the cultural war frame that was developing around the issue. After all with the Republicans being vilified for their male perspective, the prospect of woman testifying, if even at the last minute, could mitigate the perception. She was a doctor who could frame contraception away from church dictates, whose work in student health services provided a convenient change of focus from the employment rights frame, plus she was from one of the leading evangelical colleges in the country, a brand name. What’s not to like?
In her testimony the Committee got what it needed. Dr. Champion first addressed contraception issues distinguishing between ready support of birth control pills and the rejection of the abortifacient nature of post-coital contraception (Plan B and ella) — a distinction that neither pro-life advocates or medical science support. And then she moved on to an assertion of religious liberty and of opposition to the Administration largely mirroring conventional conservative points.
If Committee got what the window dressing it wanted, it is less clear what was in it for the Calvin.
Leaving aside upset bishops and the Republican cultural war the questions on religious liberty remain as critical challenges for the College and the broader Reformed community — the Windmill.
Philosophically, this community has thought of its social engagement as being essentially religious in nature — this is the Kuyperian vision, stemming from from the thinking of the 19th C Dutch theologian and politician, Abraham Kuyper. The result was a set of faith-based social institutions, not only education, but urban development, family programs, refugee programs and more. These institutions are part of the institutional legacy of our region. With such prominent engagement in the public square, the issue of boundaries between religious worldview and civic expectations is to be expected and constantly negotiated.
Here is the first threat of partisanship. Where the College has well-deserved reputation for nuanced thinking about and leading civic life (e.g. see the work of the late Paul Henry), partisanship can freeze Calvin’s real concerns, devaluing its subsequent arguments. For the College the real danger is that such politicization leads to the false dilemma of secularization or cultural pull-back.
And there is one set of arguments, a conflict that will certainly occupy this decade in society and at Calvin, that of same-sex relations. The strategic mistake for Calvin will be to let itself be boxed into a set of positions that are seen as wholly partisan. Positions and objections thus seen are far more likely to be resolved by political means, as Dr Champion expressed it,
that religious liberties are not something that any president has the legal authority to recognize or deny.
The task at hand then is to delineate those principles that can be accepted by the general public, and which nonetheless continue to support the school’s own stance.
And it’s not just Calvin. The community as a whole needs this intellectually robust engagement, not more political theatre.