If you’ve seen a single interview with Richard Dawkins, I can almost guarantee you’ve heard him fall into a fit of positively religious indignation at the notion of baptizing children, raising children to be Christian or calling a child a “Christian child.” To Dawkins – and a good many other New Atheists – there is no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child or even an atheist child. They aren’t anything until they make up their mind about what they’ll be. That’s the Dawkins approach. And it’s an approach thoroughly consistent with the rationalistic Enlightenment type assumptions behind Dawkins view of the world. It, however, is not an approach consistent with anything like an orthodox Christian view of the world.
In Christianity, all the world is God’s. There is, in Kuyper’s familiar phrase, not a single inch of creation of which Christ doesn’t (justly) say “that’s mine!” Further, in Christianity human beings are not primarily seen as individual beings but as covenantal beings. Briefly, this means that we’re identified in relationship to one another. Specifically, as Paul argues in Romans, it means that we’re covenantally identified to one of two possible federal heads: Adam, in whom we sinned, or Christ, in whom we are raised. The concept, no doubt, sounds strange to modern ears, but to any agrarian society it is patently obvious that our existence depends upon the existence of other’s. Christianity simply takes this a step further; it’s not simply that we depend physically on one another, but that on some deeper spiritual level we actually are connected to one another. Indeed, this is one of the underlying assumptions of the Gospel: The reason that substitutionary atonement works is that we are not primarily individuals, but members of a covenant community in which our identity is viewed through the identity of our covenant lord, be that Adam or God.
This all brings me to the debate about Catholic hospitals and other businesses providing their employees with free birth control as part of the new Affordable Care Act. (For my money, the most level-headed take on the controversy has come from Sarah Kiff at Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog.) My goal here isn’t to hitherto unnoticed observation about the controversy, the bill itself, the Obama administration’s puzzling decision about the exemption, or the thoroughly-predictable response from American Catholics. Instead, it’s simply to make one observation: There seems to be an assumption behind the decision of Obama, Sebelius, etc. that individuals can be religious and make decisions for themselves about what their conscience will and won’t allow them to do. But non-church institutions cannot be religious in the same way. So they are expected to function on the basis of some nebulously-defined, poorly-understood “secular neutrality.” (I use the scare quotes not to infer some kind of sinister purpose but simply because there is no such thing as a religiously-neutral public policy. There can be neutral public spaces meant for debate, but a public policy on religion cannot help being biased toward one set of world-viewish beliefs, be those beliefs secular, Christian, or Muslim, or something else entirely.) This seems a classic example of the popular truism amongst religious conservatives about ideas having consequences. If we grant the assumption that every individual is, in some way, an autonomous being, then these sorts of debates are inevitable. What is needed as a corrective is a robust Christian anthropology that understands the importance of the dignity of each human individual but also the significance of our shared communal identity. Within that understanding of human identity, it then becomes valid to speak of groups or social institutions of one kind or another as being “Christian” or “Muslim” or what have you. But as long as we grant the assumption of some sort of absolute human autonomy, we should expect to have these sorts of debates.