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Breaking Our Partisan Chains

breakchain [1]If you’ve been following the litigation challenging the now-infamous Health and Human Services mandate requiring employer-provided group health plans to cover abortifacients, sterilization, and artificial contraception, you may be aware that a company named Eden Foods [2] has filed one such lawsuit [3]. Eden Foods is an organic food company that began as a co-operative venture with the mission [4] of providing products “that are not nutrient depleted and without toxic chemical adulteration.”

Eden Foods’ mission and business model is very straightforward. They buy all of the food they distribute from local, small farms that engage in no genetic modification and use no potentially harmful chemicals. In effect, they exist because they believe people should have the choice to avoid putting artificially enhanced, mass produced substances into their bodies.

Looked at in this way, it makes perfect sense that Eden Foods would want nothing to do with artificial contraception or abortifacient drugs, which are artificially produced hormonal products that do not even offer the nutritional value of chemically-adulterated foods. And yet, their challenge to the HHS Mandate has generated fierce opposition from many who claim to agree with the company’s founding principles.

Irin Carmon, writing for Salon, provides the clearest example of the often over-the-top rhetoric directed against Eden Foods. In a piece published on April 11 [5], Carmon accuses Eden of employing “marketing…designed to appeal to liberals” while it has “quietly pursued a decidedly right-wing agenda.” Reading the piece in its entirety, it becomes clear that Carmon feels betrayed. For her, every decision, even what we choose to eat, is a political decision and must be interpreted in a Left vs. Right paradigm. The organic food movement, in Carmon’s opinion, belongs on the Left. Opposition to the HHS Mandate belongs on the Right. So, the folks at Eden Foods must be either hypocrites or con artists. In fact, she closes her piece with an accusation that Eden Foods has been “marketing itself to a liberal clientele and then quietly harboring a right-wing, ideological agenda.”

There is a critical lesson to be learned here, particularly for Catholics. Coming from a very partisan political background, I know well what it’s like to develop that bunker mentality where the other party is so dangerous that political debate becomes little more than a no-holds-barred effort to defeat them at all costs. Certain news outlets are trusted (Fox News? MSNBC?) while another is completely mistrusted. A Republican who supports poverty programs or comprehensive immigration reform will be called a “moderate squish” and will often be purged in favor of a “true conservative.” A Democrat who supports true marriage and the right to life will be deemed insufficiently “progressive,” unless they can offer assurances that their views are still “evolving.”

The Catholic Church has a body of social teaching that predates and transcends these hardened partisan categories. We are called to defend the inherent dignity of each and every human person, whether in the womb, trapped in a cycle of poverty, or forced to migrate to provide for his or her family. Our political culture is constantly telling us that we have to pick and choose among these things and oppose the rest. We are told it’s a wonderful thing to remove all artificial hormones from your diet, but only a crazy ideologue would remove them from their medicine cabinet. (And just try to get a fair hearing if you want the chance to articulate the actual reasons the Church opposes artificial contraception, not to mention the redefinition of marriage. By siding with the Church, one becomes a ritually impure source to whom many feel they need not listen.)

When we succumb to these social pressures, we lose both our evangelical witness in our nation’s political life, as well as our prophetic voice. We are told we must pick one of the two sides to be relevant, but is that really true? Has that ever really worked for us in the past, or resulted in the Church’s voice being co-opted by political power players?

We are called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. To the extent we are involved in political life, we should be a positive influence, not allow ourselves to be influenced. Our mission requires knowledge of our principles, a desire to be truly consistent with them, and a willingness to boldly proclaim what we know to be right. Only when we embrace this mission will we cease to be used by the political process and begin to change it.