The Magazine

Official Crusade

Michelle Obama’s theology of the body.

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By MEGHAN CLYNE
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On February 11, as the debate over the Obama administration’s rule forcing religious institutions to provide insurance for contraceptive and aborti-facient drugs to their employees was reaching fever pitch, a prominent American said:

Our faith communities don’t tend only to folks’ spiritual health but to their emotional and their physical health as well. Think for a moment about the Scripture that tells us that your bodies are temples given to you by God. That is a core teaching of so many of our faiths—a teaching that calls us to honor and nourish the bodies we’ve been blessed with, and to help others do the same.

How’s that again? Religious institutions should have a say in individuals’ physical health? People should look to Scripture to know how to think about their bodies? What Bible-thumping Neanderthal came up with that one?

Actually, it was none other than the first lady, Michelle Obama, speaking at Northland Church in Longwood, Florida, on the second anniversary of her “Let’s Move!” anti-obesity initiative. Her remarks had nothing to do with the clash over the contraception mandate. Nevertheless, they illuminate some contradictions in the administration’s attitude toward churches and the appropriateness of telling people how to live their lives.

On one hand, the administration insists that employers’ religious views should carry no weight in matters of women’s health. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the president’s most visible reelection booster, has asserted: “To say to hundreds of thousands of women who work for religious organizations ‘No’ because of your employer’s objections, whether or not you choose to use contraception you aren’t going to be able to get the same access that other employees can get access to? That’s not right.” The official White House line—repeated often by spokesman Jay Carney—is that “decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss.”

So religious leaders and employers have no business opining on what a woman does with her body. Unless, that is, Michelle Obama gives the all-clear. Because when it comes to eating habits, physical activity, cholesterol, and weight, the White House is telling churches it’s their obligation to instruct women (and men and children) what to do with their bodies.

This is the principle behind Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move Faith and Communities” initiative, launched in November 2010 to enlist faith-based organizations in the anti-obesity crusade. At events across the country, Obama has celebrated religious organizations that have heeded her call, lauding everything from Jewish community gardens to Muslim sports tournaments.

The HHS website for “Let’s Move Faith and Communities” highlights other praiseworthy projects, like the “Raising Up Healthy Women and Girls” initiative of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It seeks to help “a community of women created in the image of God” recognize that “it is imperative that every woman … understands how her well-being benefits the faith community.” Because they’re telling women to avoid heart disease and stroke, not contraception and abortion, the Lutherans get a White House thumbs-up.

Another participant in Mrs. Obama’s anti-obesity crusade is Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. In October, the “Let’s Move” blog cheered the organization’s efforts to “lead their larger community towards becoming more involved in the First Lady’s ‘Let’s Move Faith & Communities’ initiative.” The post, written by a staffer in HHS’s faith-based office, went on to report:

As a first step, the organization formed a new Catholic Charities Wellness Committee to focus on promoting healthy living ideals among the staff. To achieve this goal, the committee decided to challenge employees to be physically active for 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week—for 6 weeks! Employees could report any variety of activity from swimming to walking to dancing or even yoga—they just had to do it every day in order to create new patterns of physical activity and to inspire new healthier lifestyle habits.

The challenge brought together 367 employees, many of whom joined in a headquarters-wide PALA [Presidential Active Lifestyle Award] achievement event kicked off by a short walk around the Catholic Charities headquarters followed by healthy snacks and certificate presentation. Sparked by friendly competition between departments to take the most positive steps within the challenge, several staff members declared they had lost weight and were committed to a healthier lifestyle due to their challenge experience. “I’ve lost 18 pounds so far and feel really healthy. I owe it to PALA and getting fit to celebrate,” said one Catholic Charities staff member.

Evidently it’s all fun and games at the church-state party—until someone spoils the revels by objecting that Obamacare’s mandate will compel some religious institutions to violate their own moral teachings or go out of business. Late last month, Chicago’s archbishop, Francis Cardinal George, summed up the choices this way: Under the HHS regulations, Catholic service organizations will be forced to abandon church teachings and oversight, or pay annual fines that are “not economically sustainable,” or sell their hospitals and charities to non-Catholic groups and local governments, or “close down.” It’s a cruel fate for the administration to impose on an organization that, just five months ago, it was praising as a model of civic engagement. 

The experience of Chicago’s Catholic Charities suggests the need for some soul-searching on both sides of the HHS fight. First, how can the administration insist that “decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss” and at the same time urge employers to tell their workers how to manage their fitness and weight? Meanwhile, some faith-based organizations that have garnered the administration’s praise for their participation in “Let’s Move!” now face a threat to their very survival from that same administration. Such organizations may want to reconsider how much friendly cooperation and blog-post fodder they will render unto Caesar—and Caesar’s wife.

Despite the evident contradictions, though, the administration’s positions are, at bottom, remarkably consistent. The Obamas are happy to exploit religious institutions insofar as they serve the broader purposes of progressive government—and to ride roughshod over them when they get in the way. 

“It’s a heads I win, tails churches lose proposition,” says Jim Towey, president of Ave Maria University in southwestern Florida, which is suing the federal government over the contraception mandate. But Towey has some other relevant experience: He is the former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush. He says the Obama administration’s efforts to manipulate religious institutions are unprecedented. 

“Democratic and Republican presidents alike—nobody would cross this line until now,” Towey explained. “There was always respect for conscience rights, and the fact that maybe government didn’t have the only voice on moral issues like this.” 

The notion that such moral questions should be settled by government—that the views of churches and other mediating institutions only complicate matters more efficiently managed by the state—is at the heart of the progressive project that animates the Obama presidency. This is why the administration claims for itself the right to decide when it is acceptable for churches to speak in the public square. It is why the administration sought even to determine what is and is not religious activity—until that position was rejected by a unanimous Supreme Court in January in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C. And it is why the administration resorts to what Cardinal George calls “a tactic now familiar in our public life: Those who cannot be co-opted are isolated and then destroyed.” 

“The state is making itself into a church,” the cardinal adds. Indeed. It may be a poor substitute for real churches, but there is an upside. This new church teaches a much simpler theology of the body: “Do whatever the Obamas say.”

Meghan Clyne is managing editor of National Affairs.

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