The UMC General Board of Silly Walks


One of Monty Python’s greatest sketches is The Ministry of Silly Walks, a commentary on how bloated bureaucracies exist only to perpetuate themselves, and in doing so, result in a great amount of silliness.

I was directed to a recent article by Jim Winkler, the General Secretary of the General Board of Church & Society for the UMC. After perusing its contents, I was struck by how the GBCS in many ways parallels the Ministry of Silly Walks in that it likewise results in a great deal of silliness. Obviously the comparison is at some level quite flawed, in that the Ministry of Silly Walks may actually result in some kind of valuable contribution to church and society.

Mr. Winkler’s Word from Winkler: It’s Not About Religious Freedom is one of those posts that contains so much fallacious reasoning that it almost rises above the level of being liable to a good fisking, as it ends up parodying itself.

I say almost because a fisk will nevertheless result.

Let’s begin.

I’ve always appreciated that The United Methodist Church has never claimed to be a victim of religious persecution.

Mr. Winkler seems to think that not claiming to be a victim of religious persecution is some sort of virtue. Fair enough. However, one might also argue that the UMC has also not been in existence long enough nor in any sort of position where religious persecution might actually be a cause for concern. The UMC was not founded until 1968, and, within the United States at least, there has been little to no overt persecution of Christian denominations over that intervening time about which one might complain.

Even though we imposed our religious views on others when we pushed through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting sale and manufacture of alcohol nearly 100 years ago, we did not insist our religious liberty was infringed when Prohibition was repealed.

After reading this argument for the first time, I have to confess to laughing out loud at the sheer absurdity of this analogy. That Mr. Winkler is able to conflate Prohibition and its repeal with the HHS mandate with a straight face is nearly as amusing as it is ridiculous. Let’s consider the obvious differences.

1. Prohibition, whether one thinks it was a good idea or not, was an amendment that was brought about by a democratic process. The HHS contraception mandate was issued by Executive fiat. While the sheer fact that something becomes law via the democratic process obviously does not contain any comment as to its moral content, this fact alone demonstrates that Mr. Winkler’s conflation of these two issues is fundamentally flawed.

2. There are no religious bodies, of which I am aware, that have as a doctrinal precept that one must sell or manufacture alcohol and that abstaining from doing so would be tantamount to violating one’s conscience. Granted, one might argue that the Catholic requirement to partake of the Eucharist would imply such a precept. (in that the rubrics of the Mass require the use of actual wine, and that wine has to come from somewhere…) However, even during Prohibition Catholics and Anglicans and any other religious groups that used wine in their religious services were not therefore banned from doing so, or, more to the point, from procuring it, indicating that, whether religious exemptions were enacted into law or simply understood to be distinct from the intent of Prohibition, this sort of use clearly did not fall under Prohibition.

In distinction, the use of contraception runs counter to the doctrinal precepts of Catholics (as well as many Protestants who may not be on board with their denominations’ official stance or lack thereof) and the HHS mandate would directly require the violating of that doctrinal stance.

3. The repeal of Prohibition did not require that individuals or religious groups financially support the sale and manufacture of alcohol. That those who backed Prohibition were disappointed in its repeal is perhaps unfortunate, but the repeal did not entail that their consciences would be violated since they were not required to either formally or materially participate in the evil they perceived the sale, distribution or manufacturing of alcohol to be.

4. Lastly, the prohibition of alcohol cannot be reasonably maintained to be simply an imposition of religious views. While Christians/religious persons may have been the driving force behind the temperance movement, that does not necessitate that everyone within the temperance movement had religious motivations in their participation. There any number of reasons that one may have opposed the sale and manufacture of alcohol.

One final note: Who, I would ask, is this ‘we?’ The UMC did not exist until 1968, long after the repeal of Prohibition. Mr. Winkler is engaging in anachronism in a failed attempt to buttress his flawed analogy. That Mr. Winkler could possibly conflate the passage and repeal of Prohibition with the HHS mandate only demonstrates the utter fallaciousness of his argument.

We strongly oppose gambling and find war incompatible with Christian teaching. We don’t suggest, however, that the spread of gambling and the constant warfare around the world represent persecution of Methodism.

Nor should one suggest such a thing. In regards to gambling and its spread, no one is compelling those who oppose gambling to pay for others to gamble. In regards to war, the very social principles of the UMC make it clear that one need not be categorically opposed to war, but may in good conscience support it under the right circumstances. (Social Principles, 165C)

As such, the mere fact that there is constant warfare around the world does not entail nor represent the persecution of United Methodism. After all, there are many things that are incompatible with Christian teaching. Any particular sin and the engagement in that sin is, presumably, incompatible with Christian teaching. Does that therefore mean that the sheer fact that people sin represents the persecution of United Methodism or Christianity in general?

Yet, when the General Board of Church & Society agreed that religiously affiliated employers have an obligation to provide contraceptive services through the health insurance plans they offer to their employees, we have been accused of thwarting the religious liberty of various groups such as evangelical Christians and the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr. Winkler amusingly proceeds as if his fallacious analogies have hit their mark. The difficulty is that if one proceeds from a fundamentally flawed premise, the resulting argument is going to be as equally flawed.

Certain religious groups, Catholics in particular, have as doctrine an opposition to contraception as sinful, whether one’s participation in it is formal or material. While one is certainly free to disagree with this on any number of levels, (whether it be doctrinal, political, practical, etc.) it is difficult to understand how the government coercing those with religious opposition to a particular practice to participate in that practice by funding it (material cooperation) would not entail the thwarting of religious liberty.

On another note, who does Mr. Winkler presume to be to determine for a religious group with which he is not affiliated that their doctrinal stance on a particular issue is of such irrelevance that he can see fit pronounce that they have an obligation to violate their doctrinal stance and, as a matter of course, their consciences, or to proclaim that the ability of religious groups to hold such a position does not fall under the definition of religious liberty? Is contraception such a sacrosanct thing that Mr. Winkler understands the trampling of a religious group’s beliefs to be no big deal?

Why is it that the liberty of those who are denied basic health-care services is not at issue?

At this point it seems that Mr. Winkler has abandoned any pretensions to critical thinking.

Firstly, that contraception is not provided through a particular insurance plan does not infringe upon anyone’s liberty. One is not required to work at a certain employer; if the insurance plans they offer do not provide the coverage one desires or needs, one is free to pursue employment with an employer whose insurance plan provides the necessary coverage. If a change of employment is not desired or practical, one is not therefore prevented from securing additional individual coverage that covers what the employer-provided coverage does not.

Secondly, that a particular insurance plan does not cover contraception is hardly tantamount to a denial of basic health care services. That Mr. Winkler makes such a statement is somewhat of an embarrassment, in that he demonstrates once again that his argument hinges upon logical fallacies. Contraception is not a basic-health care service in that it does not (at least in the general sense of contraception in regards to preventing pregnancy) prevent nor treat any disease or malady. (Granted, some forms of birth control are employed for non-birth control related issues, but those are generally covered under typical insurance plans.) As such, it could hardly be considered a ‘basic health care service.’

As a sort of aside, as someone who must spend thousands of dollars every year to both prevent actual diseases and treat an actual disease, for Mr. Winkler to conflate a luxury item like contraception with actual health care services is kind of a slap in the face, and somewhat offensive. I do not receive government coerced funding from others to treat my cancer, nor would I expect that anyone should be coerced to do so. Yet Mr. Winkler insists that contraception is a basic health care service and should thus be an obligation for everyone, religious organizations included, to provide, consciences and convictions be damned.

Lastly, even if someone’s insurance plan does not cover contraception, that does not entail that they are therefore denied access to it or are somehow prevented from obtaining it through their own means. If the numbers provided by the CDC are accurate and indicative of the general population, 99% of women use contraception, which implies that they are somehow able to access it. I know, it is hard to believe that this could be the case, given the denial of basic health care that the current lack of contraceptive coverage by Catholic and other religious organizations assures… It’s as if access to contraception is robust enough to ensure that 99% of American women use it.

(As another aside, I am hard pressed to think of any other product or service that 99% of the population is able to access and use. I am certainly open to suggestions.)

Contraception benefits society.

This is a rather dubious assertion, which I suppose rests upon what one predicates of the term benefits. From a socio-economic perspective, it is hard to see how this assertion could be maintained, as contraception has had the effect of a significant redistribution of welfare from women to men, tends to redistribute welfare from a woman’s later years to her earlier years, (which tends to result in a marked decrease in overall welfare for any children she may have) and creates a prisoner’s dilemma for women which is difficult to break. [1. Timothy Reichert, Bitter Pill.] Contraception has, for all intents and purposes, bifurcated the ‘mating market’ into a sex market and a marriage market. Commenting on this phenomenon and what it means for the welfare of women, Reichert states:

The result is easy to see. From the perspective of women, the sex market is one in which they have more bargaining power than men. They are the scarce commodity in this market and can command higher “prices” than men while inhabiting it.

But the picture is very different once these same women make the switch to the marriage market. The relative scarcity of marriageable men means that the competition among women for marriageable men is far fiercer than that faced by prior generations of women. Over time, this means that the “deals they cut” become worse for them and better for men…The day-to-day aspects of marriage shift relatively toward the welfare of men, and relatively away from the welfare of women and their children. In short, men take more and more of the “gains from trade” that marriage creates, and women take fewer and fewer.[2. ibid.]>

As such, unless one perceives the benefits to society as referring to the benefits that men have received as the result of widespread contraception use, Mr. Winkler’s claim is at least open to severe qualification.

Nor is this merely a religious argument. Even secular outlets are able to perceive the impact that contraception has had on society. Business Insider, hardly a shill for the Catholic Church, in a recent article made the case that, despite what feelings one may have towards Humanae Vitae, its predictions concerning the impact of widespread contraception use upon society have proven prophetic, including a general lowering of moral standards, a rise in infidelity and illegitimacy, the reduction of women to sexual objects to satisfy men, and government coercion in reproductive matters.[3. Business Insider, Time To Admit It: The Church Has Always Been Right On Birth Control]

Naturally, one may feel that there are other benefits from contraception that outweigh these, but, at least in my opinion, such benefits would have to be of a rather extreme nature to justify the benefits society statement.

It reduces the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, reduces the need for abortions, and assists families to plan the number and spacing of their children.

While correlation does not prove causation, (although Mr. Winkler seems to ignore this fundamental principle) these types of assertions at least have a certain level of quantifiability.

In regards to reducing the spread of STDs or STI’s, while perfect use of barrier methods of contraception can significantly reduce one’s probability of contracting HIV or gonorrhea, there is inconclusive evidence for their effectiveness against chlamydia, genital herpes, syphilis and other STI’s. Given that there are around 15 million new cases of STI’s every year in the United States alone, one might be led to question Mr. Winkler’s unqualified assertion.

As for the reduction of the need for abortions, once again Mr. Winkler makes an unfounded assertion that is not borne out by any evidence. In regards to unplanned pregnancies among teenagers, (unplanned pregnancies being a significant predictor of abortions) a recent study suggests that contraceptive use, while reducing unplanned pregnancies in the short term, may actually increase it over the long term.[4. Habit Persistence and Teen Sex: Could Increased Access to Contraception have Unintended Consequences for Teen Pregnancies?]

Additionally, in 2003 the Guttmacher Institute released a study that showed simultaneous increases in both contraceptive use and abortion rates in the United States, Cuba, Denmark, Netherlands, Singapore, and South Korea.[5. Contraception and Abortion Rates (Or, A Christianist Responds)]

Again, correlation does not betoken causality, but the available research at least demonstrates that there is no consensus on the availability and use of contraception and abortion rates, or that contraception necessarily reduces the incidence of STDs.

Just because someone says their religious liberty is being infringed upon does not make it so.

It is nice to see that Mr. Winkler believes that he has the ability to adjudicate for a religious institution with which he disagrees on a particular issue that their stance on that issue and its trampling by the force of law does not constitute an infringement of religious liberty. It’s also rather convenient. Unfortunately, it also sets a rather dangerous precedent when the government (or, perhaps even worse, thinkers like Mr. Winkler) is permitted to decide for a religious institution which of its doctrines and moral beliefs are worth protecting and which are not.

Just because the Catholic hierarchy says that birth control is a sin against God does not make it so.

This is a rather curious statement to make, especially after stating that war (and gambling) is incompatible with Christian teaching. Based on the logic of that statement, just because the Social Principles of the UMC say that war (or gambling or whatever) is incompatible with Christian teaching (presumably a sin? or do we still call things sinful?) does not make it so.

This is one area where The United Methodist Church is in clear disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church: “People have the duty to consider the impact on the total world community of their decisions regarding childbearing and should have access to information and appropriate means to limit their fertility” (United Methodist Social Principles, 162K, 2008 Discipline).

Obviously there is clear disagreement. However, as that sage Jim Winkler has already said, just because someone says such-and-such about such-and-such does not make it so. Very well. By Mr. Winkler’s own logic the United Methodist Principles have as much authority as the statements of the bishops, so I fail to see why he even chooses to quote from the United Methodist Social Principles, since they have as much propensity to be perceived as flawed as the statements of the bishops.

Mr. Winkler also engages in misdirection here. The Roman Catholic Church has a moral stance on the use of contraception as a sin, but that stance does not necessarily entail the limiting or denial of access of someone who does not share such a stance from obtaining information about contraception or engaging in it. Mr. Winkler, however, chooses to frame the disagreement between the UMC and the RCC as precisely this, at least by implication, by including that quote as forming the basis of the disagreement. (The use of a colon cannot be merely gratuitous, but has a specific function)

“We affirm the right of men and women to have access to comprehensive reproductive health/family planning information and services that will serve as a means to prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions, and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS” (Social Principles, 162V, 2008 Discipline).

Here Mr. Winkler continues the misdirection by means of the second quotation, implying that the UMC’s support of contraception and its access is for comprehensive health/family planning, (there’s the misnomer of contraception as relating to ‘health’ again…) preventing unplanned pregnancies, reducing abortions, and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS while the RCC’s rejection of contraception is tantamount to rejecting these things. (Again, part of the ‘disagreement.’)

This is a classic fallacy in that Mr. Winkler doesn’t seem to consider that contraception is not the only means by which one may have comprehensive health/family planning, prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions or prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. (In fact, in regards to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, even the RCC’s critics admitted that condom promotion hadn’t done much to stem the tide of HIV/AIDS infections.)[6. Condoms, HIV-AIDS and Africa – The Pope Was Right] It thus seems that Mr. Winkler’s choice of this second quotation adds nothing to the discussion of the disagreement between the UMC and the RCC viz-a-viz contraception.

A compromise has been offered that enables religiously affiliated institutions to refuse basic contraception coverage to their employees by mandating that insurance companies offer these services to women who opt for them. Catholic leadership has rejected the compromise.

As well they should have. The compromise, as it has been termed, is merely kicking the can a little further down the road. It is not even a compromise in any meaningful sense of the term in that the same mandate is in place and religious organizations are still required to comply with it. In the end it is still the religious institution which is paying the premiums on the insurance policies; making the cooperation with what many religious organizations consider to be an evil slightly more remote does not alter the moral equation in any meaningful way.

Why? Because they don’t want women to have the liberty to choose to use birth control. They want to deny that freedom to women.

It seems that Mr. Winkler has decided that he does not want to engage in an adult conversation. I would be curious if Mr. Winkler could produce any statements from the USCCB in which they actually say that they wish to restrict the liberty of women to choose birth control. What? They haven’t made such a statement? How about the one where they state that they want to deny this freedom to women? No? Mr. Winkler has apparently appropriated to himself the powers of clairvoyance, in that he is able to perceive the thoughts and intents of the Catholic bishops. The UMC is lucky to have someone with super human sensory perception!

On a more serious note, Mr. Winkler’s absurd comments here seem far more indicative of his ideological commitments than having any bearing on the motivations or intentions of the Catholic bishops. In fact, if Mr. Winkler wants to know a far more plausible reason for their rejection of the HHS mandate, he might try perusing Humane Vitae.

There were those who argued that racial segregation was biblically mandated, that keeping women out of church leadership was sanctioned by God, and that destruction of the environment is approved by God. All of these notions were and are wrong. Religious freedom is not violated by denying religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and other institutions the right to discriminate on the basis of race or gender.

All of these notions were and are wrong? Mr. Winkler, for having previously stated that just because the bishops say something is a sin does not make it so, now apparently decides to engage in a form of dogmatizing that would make the staunchest papist blush. That is not to say that racial segregation was right, but it seems that if Mr. Winkler is going to use a certain form of argument against the bishops and the doctrine of the RCC, he should critically apply it to his own arguments.

This bit of argument that Mr. Winkler pursues is a little curious, in that it really has no bearing on the contraceptive mandate whatsoever. Again, Mr. Winkler engages in flawed analogies that have no meaningful relationship to the controversy at hand.

Segregation, even though some may have argued that it was biblically mandated, was never an official doctrinal position of any Christian denomination of which I am aware. While a disparity in theology and praxis is unfortunate, it is also an unavoidable aspect of humans being involved in religion.

Women in church leadership is an ecclesiastical issue, unlike the HHS mandate. The last time I checked, the government was not in the business of deciding whether women could serve a particular function within an ecclesiastical community or not. Mr. Winkler seems to have determined that to have an opinion different from his own puts one in the moral wrong. Fine. However, the analogy he attempts to craft between this issue and the HHS mandate is simply a horse that won’t run.

I am not sure whether or not environmental issues are a pet peeve of Mr. Winkler’s or not, but their inclusion in this list is a bit perplexing. Once again, I am unaware of any Christian denomination that advocates the destruction of the environment as something approved by God. (Perhaps there are, and I am open to correction if this has in fact been the case.) Granted, in a religion with over 1 billion adherents one is bound to find the crazies who advocate crazy things, but intellectual honesty would surely compel someone interested in having a meaningful conversation on the subject to realize that religious off-shoots that are clearly far outside the mainstream (and even outside the tributaries…) are not indicative of those who do not share one’s perspective or approach to a particular issue.

As for religious freedom not being violated by religious organizations not being able to discriminate on the basis of race or gender- This is a rather obvious point that no one really disagrees with since these religious organizations do not have as part of their doctrinal precepts that one should discriminate on the basis of race or gender when hiring employees to work for the aforementioned religious institutions. Thus, I am a bit perplexed as to how Mr. Winkler thinks this has any meaningful relation to the discussion at hand. Once again he attempts to conflate two things that are in essence distinct, and in doing so completely misses the point of the religious opposition to the HHS mandate.

(Mr. Winkler might argue that women are not permitted to be priests or bishops within the Catholic Church. True enough, but there is a recognized distinction between a non-ecclesiastical employee of a religious institution and an actual ecclesiastical position. An aspect of the separation of Church and State is that the State does not have the power to mandate who can and cannot be in a certain ecclesiastical position. One can certainly disagree with the RCC regarding their position on women in such an ecclesiastical role. However, to assert that an organization’s refusal to ordain women constitutes discrimination when membership and participation in that organization is completely voluntary seems rather contrived.)

Now, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri proposes that any employer — religious or anti-religious, for that matter — should have the “right” to refuse coverage to its employees of any services, treatments or medications it disagrees with.

Mr. Winkler slightly misrepresents the proposed legislation. Here is the text of the legislation regarding exemptions:

(i) providing coverage (or, in the case of a sponsor of a group health plan, paying for coverage) of such specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan; or

“(ii) such coverage (in the case of individual coverage) is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the purchaser or beneficiary of the coverage.

It is not simply a matter of disagreeing with a service, treatment or medication, (one could disagree with any of these for non-religious reasons) but rather the service, treatment or medication being contrary to one’s religious beliefs or moral convictions. This limits the specific items that one might opt to be exempt from, and in the case of the RCC is actually a very short list.

*Update: Mr. Winkler need not worry himself over this any longer. Today the Senate struck down this amendment by three votes.

Perhaps an employer may hold the wild idea that use of pain medication or anesthesia indicates some sort of moral weakness. Therefore, the employer excludes that from the health-insurance plan offered to employees. Or, maybe an employer thinks that people contract diabetes due to poor dietary and exercise decisions they’ve made. Therefore, the employer doesn’t want to offer treatment for the disease.

Mr. Winkler is simply grasping at straws here. No legislation is perfect, and as with any legislation, there is the potential that someone might attempt to exploit it or find loopholes in it for their own personal benefit. The examples Mr. Winkler offers, however, are so outlandish as to really be beneath rebuttal. Nor is it at all self-evident that any of the examples he mentioned would actually rise to the level of moral conviction or religious belief.

Notice, if you will, that in this debate it is the religious freedom of institutions and corporations that is being addressed, not that of employees. In a world where corporations are declared to be people —where corporations even claim religious freedom — is it possible that real human beings, employees, no longer will have the rights of human beings or the freedom to practice behavior they consider ethical?

As we are nearing the end of this truly unfortunate article, Mr. Winkler manages to outdo himself. Instead of demonstrating how providing an exemption to organizations that are morally or religiously opposed to contraception from having to provide something they find morally objectionable to employees who can easily access contraception on their own nor are prevented from doing so by any entity (including their employer) constitutes a violation of human rights, he merely continues on merrily with the misnomer that not providing something to someone at no cost (which is in and of itself ridiculous) is tantamount to restricting their access to it. This, is of course, absurd, and Mr. Winkler should be ashamed of engaging in such a ludicrous fallacy.

Additionally, instead of demonstrating how this exemption would limit or restrict the freedom of human beings to practice what they think is ethical, (a statement which in and of itself is liable to a reductio ad absurdum) Mr. Winkler completely misses the irony that the coercion of the HHS mandate foisted upon religious organizations and individuals opposed to contraception limits and restricts their freedom to practice behavior they consider ethical or to not engage in behavior they consider unethical. Of course, throughout the course of this article Mr. Winkler has shown a propensity to parody himself, so it is perhaps not unexpected or surprising.

We hold as a denomination the belief that health care is a basic right and part of that includes ensuring access for women to contraception. This is about the common good.

Ah yes, the common good. Who, exactly, adjudicates what constitutes the common good? The General Secretary of the GBCS? Is it part of the common good to trample upon the rights of fellow citizens/human beings? Wait, I forgot. As Mr. Winkler has assured us, this has absolutely nothing to do with religious liberty. If consciences or convictions must be sacrificed upon the altar of the common good to ensure that the already ubiquitous access to contraception in the United States can now be both ubiquitous and funded, then consciences be damned!

The common good demands it.

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