It's a measure of how confused our society is these days that the Affordable Care Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on unlikely grounds by an unlikely majority. Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, not Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist, sided with the liberal justices. And the law was valid not by virtue of the Constitution's commerce clause, Roberts said in his opinion, but because penalties for not having insurance are really a tax, which falls within Congress' powers.
I leave to others the ruling's implications for the presidential campaign, the stock market and the price of hummus in Riyadh. But if the ruling itself was unpredictable, the reaction from the religious sector was entirely predictable.
Those within the conservative Protestant orbit were appalled. The liberal Protestant camp and Jewish groups were elated. And the Catholics, well, it's complicated.
Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was astonished that the court "did not see the bill for what it really is: a blatant violation of the personal freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and perhaps a mortal blow to the concept of federalism." By Land's account, Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature should just give up and go home, the Tenth Amendment having suffered a mortal blow.
On the liberal side, Kathryn M. Lohre of the National Council of Churches appealed to a higher power: "We as churches follow the bold example of Jesus, who healed the sick, sometimes breaking the religious law that governed society." Jesus always trumps the Constitution.
As for the Catholics, it depends on who you ask and about what part of the law. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, was delighted at the decision because it will bring health care to more people. The bishops? Not so much.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised the law for taking a step in the direction of universal health care, but they continue to assert that as an employer they should not have to provide coverage for contraception, even if employees pay for that coverage themselves. The bishops say it's an infringement on their religious liberty, a view that is difficult for many non-Catholic observers to accept.
After the ruling, the bishops said they do not favor repeal. "The decision of the Supreme Court neither diminishes the moral imperative to ensure decent health care for all, nor eliminates the need to correct the fundamental flaws" in the law, they said.
The Affordable Care Act is a good illustration of the partisanship that has infected the nation's religious scene. Conservative Protestants claim, correctly, that they have joined the political fray late, following the mainline Protestant church that for decades had played a genteel political game and the Catholic Church that has been intertwined in politics since the days of Emperor Constantine.
But it's more than a little disheartening to see entrenched political ideologies reflexively given a theological rationale. Even the more nuanced position of the Catholic bishops has overtones of a conservative political agenda.
Religious groups should be able to make judgments about laws and the political process based on their values, but when those groups become rigidly partisan, they lose their credibility as organizations beholden to no earthly power. Some of these groups – on both liberal and conservative sides – have long since lost their identity as anything other than a political party at prayer.
Reaction to the health care ruling simply offers one more example of that.