The Corner

Law & the Courts

In the Upcoming Philadelphia Foster-Care Case, Let’s Talk about the Kids

( David Pereiras Villagrá/Dreamstime)

I’ve caught some of the headlines about the Philadelphia foster-care case that is going before the Supreme Court. It is obviously a fact, and an important one, that it is a religious-freedom case. That the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is involved certainly makes that clear. But I think that we are going about it wrong if we talk about it exclusively in these terms.

“Anti-Christian onslaught,” I saw this morning. This should give us a little pause, even if that’s exactly what’s going on. This case exists because of ideology and because of intolerance of traditional views. The city of Philadelphia stopped its work with Catholic Social Services because of its opposition to Catholic doctrines. And it did so at the same time when it admitted to having a foster-care crisis, and needs more, not fewer, good people involved who foster for the right reasons and know what they are doing. People like those at Catholic Social Services, and the people they support.

In her book, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies, Mary Eberstadt makes a plea to people of good will that is exactly where we need to be in regard to this Philadelphia case. The religious freedom of Sharonell Fulton and Catholic Social Services is not important to defend simply because you believe what they believe. Religious freedom is a right, an essential right, from which so much else flows. And in this particular case, innocent children are suffering. These are children who don’t have a lot of time for us to get our differences ironed out, something that likely won’t happen in most of our lifetimes. So let foster parents love, let them serve, and let them do the things government can’t do.

But here’s the thing I keep thinking about, having been around for many of these fights. I don’t think religious freedom is going to motivate people, broadly speaking, even if I wish it would. But these kids might. We need to be good stewards of religious liberty. But we also need these kids to have a chance. That’s why I like the KidsRightsNotFights approach. We don’t have to agree on even some fundamentals to agree not to mess with religious liberty, not only because it’s a fundamental right (which is really something I think we assume people are moved by in a way they are not), but also because it hurts vulnerable people when we aren’t vigorous about its defense.

The following quote is from Eberstadt’s Dangerous to Believe, which I’d love to see republished with a title like A Plea to People of Good Will: Messing with Religious Liberty Will Hurt the Most Vulnerable the Most. My blurb would be: “This is not a right-wing obsession, people. Take a deep breath. Forgot everything you’ve seen of culture wars. Now let’s talk!”

In contests pitting the abject and downtrodden against the demands of secularist writ, the abject and downtrodden lose. If the poor can’t be made to serve the sexual revolution, the thinking seems to run, to hell with them.

A few years ago, a national leader on behalf of same-sex marriage, Jonathan Rauch, observed that “[i]f Catholic Charities doesn’t want to place children for adoption with same-sex “couples in Massachusetts but lots of other agencies will make the placement, we can live with that.” That reasonable idea — of religious citizens and their adversaries working together toward the common good of people beside themselves, even as they acknowledge their differences — has been sounded almost nowhere else on his side of the discussion.

Deep credal passions are at work here — and not just those of Christians. Otherwise, why would other people work so hard to accomplish goals that on the face of things are inexplicable and hurtful, like harassing and even closing charities that help poor people?

The answer is that they do not think what they do is deplorable. They believe they are in possession of a higher truth, and they fight to universalize it — to proselytize just as anyone else who believes himself charged with guardianship of the Truth seeks to do.

Beneath the clashes over Christian charities lies a massive tectonic shift in Western cultures generally. Whether you believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God on earth, or believe instead that this story is the greatest lie that gullible humanity has ever been told, is immaterial. Surely, seeing the vehemence with which Christian charities are now attacked, people of reason can agree: the so-called culture wars are not about libertarian freedom versus religious unfreedom. They’re about a conflict between two rival faiths.

The story of the charities and why they are now under fire is not simply one of humanitarian consequence. It is also confirmation that in this cultural theater, as in others, two orthodoxies — summoning all the fealty and determination that only orthodoxies can — now compete. A new form of (mostly though not always) nonviolent religious war has been born between one group of believers following a creed whose outlines appeared two thousand years ago and an opposed group of believers following a secularist creed that has developed in the last half century following the technological shock of the Pill.

How they are ever to live together is among the most compelling questions in the West today.

We need to live together, and even work together. There are innocent children who have been wronged in life in the deepest of ways who need us to.

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