The (bus) signs of the times

A group wanted to advertise. They went to the Chicago Transit Authority and bought some ads. The ads began to appear on buses. None of this was in itself unusual.

What was unusual, indeed jolting, was the content of the ads. As Manya Brachear reported in a Nov. 15 Chicago Tribune article:

The controversial ads unveiled on the back of 10 CTA buses Wednesday [Nov. 14] read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.” They conclude with the words, “Support Copts. Defeat Jihad,” referring to friction between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Within hours of the buses’ first runs, messages appeared on Facebook and Twitter denouncing the campaign. Many said that degrading a spiritual tenet of Islam — one that refers to a Muslim’s personal quest to become a better person — amounts to hate speech.

Defeat jihad. Oppose the savages.

The ads were contracted for four weeks. They are sponsored by something called the American Freedom Defense Initiative. When New York and Washington, D.C. rejected the ads as too offensive for their public transit systems, AFDI sued on First Amendment grounds and won. Chicago felt bound by this legal precedent, according to the Tribune.

I have only seen the signs on Facebook; I typically ride the El and not the buses. But what I saw was sufficient to keep me devoted to the El for the expected four-week duration. As it is, I already get agitated over the endless succession of ads for Zipcar and for-profit massage schools.

Beyond that, the situation is making me reflect anew on something else, the U.S. bishops’ “religious freedom” campaign that took up so much of this year. To me, these bus ads, which I personally consider hate speech, have really put the bishops into unflattering perspective.

As many of us remember, the bishops went on and on about how marriage equality and the HHS-required coverage of birth control presaged an era of totalitarianism on the march. To oppose these items at the ballot box was to defend religious freedom, and to defend religious freedom was the great drama of this American hour. There was a whole “Fortnight for Freedom” devoted to it.

Meanwhile, the administration offered to shift birth control costs directly onto the insurance companies when religious employers frowned. Sexually active Catholics were already using birth control by a runaway majority. Most American Catholics supported gay rights. The “Fortnight” never captured the imagination the way the “Nuns On The Bus” did. And, at the finale, the Catholic vote tipped toward the President. The relationship between rhetoric and reality remained surreal to the end: we just didn’t feel as un-free as we were told we were.

My parish had signs on its lawn during October, asking passersby to “Vote For Religious Freedom.” Immediately after the election, I took a walk around the neighborhood and found that one sign had disappeared and the other was run over in the street, smudged with fall leaves, abandoned to the whistling mists and winds of the November midnight. It seemed eerily appropriate. “Religious freedom” was a term so inopportunely bruited about that much of its power had drained away.

We need to remember that power, that real power. So step back. Imagine.

Imagine you are the first or second generation of your family on these shores. Imagine not being able to assume you can walk down a few streets, or drive a few miles, and readily find a house of worship. Imagine not being able to assume that, if people ask you what your religion is and you tell them, that they will more or less understand.

Imagine that you likely, though by no means certainly, stand out because of your skin color or perhaps because of items of your clothing. Imagine that you, for more than a decade now, have been popularly associated with wars and rumors of wars.

Now stand and wait for the bus. Realize, as you are boarding and paying the fare, that the bus has a big ad on it. See how the ad bears the words “savage” and “jihad.” Know that what these words really mean is “you.”

And realize after all this that the struggle to live one’s faith, to live it unburdened by either fear or apology, is indeed meaningfully raging in America. But realize also that the heart of this struggle is not where they told you it was. Realize that we need to reclaim the language of religious freedom, that others depend on us to reclaim it.

The Bishops vs. HHS – What Do You Think?

Recently, a reader of our blog left the following comment on our editorial page:

I would be interested in any thoughts you all might have on the current bishops vs HHS issue. I am trying to sort mine out. I have a number of questions now that, after the Army, I have time to pray, think, and read. This is not a trick question or an attempt at entrapment. I’m really interested.

Oh boy. Suffice it to say, I’m trying to sort my thoughts about this out, too. First of all, I need to be upfront and say I haven’t been following this debate incredibly closely, so I’m happy to defer to or stand corrected by those who know more about it than I do. But essentially, I understand it as this: Catholic employers are being “forced” to include contraception and abortion in health care plans for their employees. I’ve also heard that Catholic hospitals are being “forced” to offer these services, although a very short online search didn’t bring up confirmation of this.

I first heard about this debate when my fiance came to my house outraged after he got off the phone with his uncle who is a priest. His outrage fell on the religious freedom side of the issue. (He felt this mandate trampled on religious freedom and every person’s right to obey their conscience.) Although I understood where he was coming from — I cherish religious freedom, too — on a gut level I couldn’t get to that place of outrage. Because the reality of what this mandate offers women was too important to me. Contraception isn’t a rare or specialized service; it’s something that virtually EVERY adult woman will need at some point in her life, if she wants to a) enter into a sexual relationship and b) not have more children than she can support emotionally, physically, or financially — and there are many, many cases where even just one is too many. So trumping freedom of religion definitely made me squeamish — but so did the thought of women being denied access to safe birth control “just” because they worked for a Catholic organization. I do see contraception as an essential health service, and because the “morality” of denying it causes women to suffer most, I can’t separate my judgment on the issue from the reality of who will be most adversely affected.

When I asked my younger sister about her thoughts on it, she divided the issue as follows: “I think it’s OK for them to force insurance plans to cover those services, because not EVERYONE who works for a Catholic organization is Catholic; those people should have the choice of whether to use those services or not. And if you’re getting insurance through your employer, you don’t get a choice of insurance plans, either. But I don’t think it’s OK to force Catholic hospitals to provide those services, because people can make a choice to go to a different hospital.”

My fiance and I hashed this issue out for a good hour earlier this week, and although he can make strong political arguments on any issue he cares about, I just couldn’t bring myself to choose a side on this one. I felt caught in the crossroads similar to the way I am on the abortion issue: I don’t believe abortion should be illegal, but I don’t agree with having an abortion, either. So I don’t strongly ally myself with pro-choicers or pro-lifers; I’m a “fence-sitter” on this issue that my high school civics teacher once told me you “couldn’t be a fence-sitter on.”

At the end of the night, I finally knew why I felt so trapped, and I told him: “I think they’re BOTH immoral. I think it’s immoral to force a religious organization to do something, and I think it’s immoral to deny women affordable access to contraception.”

So that’s where I stand — still in the middle, but understanding why. I’d love to hear where you stand, too, even if you, like me, hardly know yourself.