In On the Jewish Question, Marx famously critiques liberal theorists of religious freedom on the grounds that they merely wish to emancipate the state from religion. Assuming—wrongly, it turns out—that the 19th century state, or at least the American state, had indeed been fully emancipated from religion (e.g., there was no official state religion, no specific confessional requirement for the exercise of political rights, etc.), Marx notes that the American people are nevertheless quite religious. This leads him to the observation that “to be politically emancipated from religion is not to be finally and completely emancipated from religion, because political emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation.” We may be free of religion at the level of the state, but we are not free of it in our everyday life (like most Enlightenment thinkers, Marx thinks of religion as a defect). To be truly free of it, we need to emancipate ourselves from religion, to shift our focus from the state to society itself, to get past the distinction between our public lives and private selves. Not just in matters of religion, as it turns out, but in other areas as well.
President Obama’s recent “compromise” over contraception—where religious-based employers like Catholic universities and hospitals are required to provide insurance coverage that includes free birth control but are not required to pay for it, leaving insurers to eat the costs; churches and other explicitly religious institutions will remain exempt from the provision—makes me wonder if we’re not moving in the reverse direction.
98% of sexually active Catholic women essentially reject the Church’s position on contraception. In this respect at least, society has emancipated itself from religion. Even so, the state allows its policies to be dictated by the Church elders. And judging by the growing Republican discontent with even this compromise, the state’s capitulation to religion and religious sensibilities could get worse. Keep in mind, as Katha Pollitt points out, that we are not talking about isolated sects like the Amish, which don’t depend on all manner of tax subsidies and public monies for their operations; these are large-scale institutions that would not exist in their current form were it not for the state’s ongoing support.