By Fr. George Welzbacher
August 19, 2012
It would seem that, for the first time in the history of our republic, we are witnessing here in the U.S.A. the establishment of a state religion, a religion so crafted as to delight the heart of a secularist, a religion with clearly defined dogmas, compliance with whose demands is to be enforced with all of the coercive powers at the disposal of the federal government. Here are the dogmas of this new faith.
Dogma #1: A woman has the right, the unrestricted right, to make arrangements for the killing of her unborn child whenever such course of action is convenient.
Dogma #2: The chief purpose served by the institution of marriage is the securing of social recognition for romantic attraction, together with the panoply of benefits accruing to such recognition. The begetting of children, together with such subsequent upbringing as will equip them to contribute responsibly to the society in which they will spend their lives, can be dismissed as of marginal importance. Thus every man, should this be his bent, has the right to marry another man, just as every woman, should she be so disposed, has the right to marry a woman. To suggest otherwise, to imply, for example, that a man's realigning of his reproductive powers to adapt to another man's digestive tract is in any way abnormal is to be guilty of a hate crime, in exculpation of which no appeal to the rights of conscience shall be allowed, this being an intolerable crime, properly punishable with fines and/or imprisonment.
Dogma #3: The sovereign pontiff in this new state religion is the people's hero, Barack Hussein, now reigning gloriously in the White House.
Dogma #4: Enemy Number One of the new state religion is, by and large, the Christian faith and, with special intransigence, the Catholic Church. Measures must accordingly be taken to compel the recusant authorities of the Roman Catholic faith to genuflect at the new religion's altar. (Thus the new Health and Human Services mandate).
All of this represents at least one way of looking at President Obama's arrogant trampling upon the First Amendment, not to mention his repudiation of God's Commandments. A formally different but compatible "take" was recently offered by the political commentator Yuval Levin in an essay published in that excellent journal of opinion, The National Review. In his analysis of Mr. Obama's attack on traditional religion and freedom of conscience Mr. Levin begins by citing the early nineteenth century French political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America remains to this day a much admired, much consulted and much quoted classic.
In explaining America's unique vitality and strength, Tocqueville assigns special importance to the vast proliferation of VOLUNTARY ASSOCIATIONS of every imaginable type that channel human energy towards productive ends and stand as a kind of buffer, a PROTECTIVE SCREEN, between the individual citizen and the overreaching state. Mr. Levin argues that the grand aim of the Obama administration has been the systematic demolition of that buffer, that protective shield of free associations, among which first and foremost are the religious groups, America's churches and synagogues and other God-centered associations.
Here (abridged to accommodate our restrictions of space) is what Mr. Levin has to say.
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The National Review, August 13, 2012
President Obama must surely wish he could undo the campaign speech he delivered in Roanoke, Va., on July 13. That was where he offered up the view that "if you've got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else made that happen." It is a line that could haunt him right to November, revealing as it does an unwillingness to credit success and a hostility toward the culture of entrepreneurship....
This remarkable window into the president's thinking shows us not only a man chilly toward the potential of individual initiative, and not only a man deluded about the nature of his opponents and their views, but also (and perhaps most important) a man with a staggeringly THIN idea of COMMON ACTION in American life.
The president simply equates doing things TOGETHER with doing things through GOVERNMENT. He sees the citizen and the state, and NOTHING IN BETWEEN - and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.
But MOST of life is lived somewhere BETWEEN those two extremes, and American life in particular has given rise to unprecedented human flourishing because we have allowed the institutions that occupy the MIDDLE GROUND - the family, civil society, and the private economy - to thrive in relative freedom. Obama's remarks in Virginia shed a bright light on his attitude toward that middle ground, and in that light a great deal of what his administration has done in this three and a half years suddenly grows clearer and more coherent, and even more disconcerting.
Again and again, the administration has sought to hollow out the space BETWEEN the individual and the state. Its approach to the private economy has involved pursuing consolidation in key industries - privileging a few major players that are to be treated essentially as public utilities, while locking out competition from smaller or newer firms. This both ensures the cooperation of the large players and makes the economy more manageable and orderly. And it leaves no one pursuing ends that are NOT THE GOVERNMENT'S ends. This has been the essence of the administration's policies toward automakers, health insurers, banks, hospitals, and many others.
It is an attitude that takes the wealth-creation capacity of our economy for granted, treats the chaotic churning and endless combat of competing firms (which in fact is the SOURCE of that capacity) as a dangerous distraction from essential public goals, and considers the business world to be parasitic on society - benefiting from the infrastructure and resources provided by the GENUINE common action of the STATE. Of course, the state's benevolence is made possible precisely by the nation's wealthiest citizens, but the president seems to see that as simply an appropriate degree of "giving something back." His words and his administration's actions imply that he views the government as the only GENUINE tribune of public desires, and therefore seeks to harness the private economy to the purposes and goals of those in power.
This intolerance of nonconformity is even more powerfully evident in the administration's attitude toward the institutions of CIVIL society, especially RELIGIOUS institutions involved in the crucial work of helping the needy and vulnerable. In a number of instances, but most notably in the controversy surrounding the Department of Health and Human Services rule requiring religious employers to provide free abortive and contraceptive drugs to their August 19, 2012 - Pastor' s Page - continued employees under Obamacare, the administration has shown AN APPALLING CONTEMPT for the basic right of religious institutions to pursue their ends IN ACCORDANCE WITH THEIR CONVICTIONS.
It is important to recall just what the administration did in that instance. The HHS rule did not assert that people should have the freedom to use contraceptive or abortive drugs - which of course they do have in our country. It did not even say that the government should facilitate people's access to these drugs - which it does today and has done for decades. Rather, the rule required that the Catholic Church and other religious entities should facilitate people's access to contraceptive and abortive drugs. It aimed to turn the institutions of CIVIL society into active agents of the GOVERNMENT'S ends, EVEN IN VIOLATION OF THEIR FUNDAMENTAL RELIGIOUS CONVICTIONS.
The rule implicitly asserted that our nation WILL NOT TOLERATE an institution that is unwilling to actively ratify the views of those in power - that we will not let it be and find other ways to put those views into effect (even though many other ways exist), but will COMPEL it to participate in the enactment of THE ENDS CHOSEN BY OUR ELECTED OFFICIALS. This is an extraordinarily radical assertion of government power, and a failure of even basic toleration. It is, again, an attempt to turn PRIVATE mediating institutions into PUBLIC utilities contracted to execute GOVERNMENT ends.
When pressed to defend its constriction of the rights of religious institutions, the administration RECAST THE BASIC DEFINITION AND PURPOSE of such institutions. The final HHS rule defined a religious employer exceedingly narrowly, as an institution that primarily serves and employs people of its own faith and has as its basic purpose the inculcation of the beliefs of that faith. This leaves no room for most religiously based institutions of CIVIL society - no room for hospitals, for schools and universities, for soup kitchens and homeless shelters, for adoption agencies and legal-aid clinics. Religious institutions may preach to the choir, but otherwise they may not play any role in society. Especially when they disagree with those in power, they must be cleared out of the space between the individual and the state.
Indeed, the president and his administration don't seem to have much use for that space at all. Even the FAMILY, which naturally stands between the individual and the community, is not essential. In May, the Obama campaign produced a Web slideshow called "The Life of Julia, " which follows a woman through the different stages of life and shows the many ways in which she benefits from public policies that the president advocates. It was an extraordinarily revealing work of propaganda, and what it revealed was just what the president showed us in Roanoke: a vision of society consisting ENTIRELY of the individual and the state. Julia's life is the product of her individual choices enabled by public policies. She has an exceptional amount of direct contact with the federal government, yet we never meet her family. At the age of 31, we are told, "Julia decides to have a child" and "benefits from maternal checkups, prenatal care, and free screenings under health care reform." She later benefits from all manner of educational, economic, and social programs, and seems to require and depend upon no one but the president....
This attitude toward MEDIATING institutions is by no means novel or unique to the Obama administration. It has been essential to the PROGRESSIVE cause for more than a century, and indeed has been an element of more radical strands of liberalism for far longer than that. As far back as 1791, Thomas Paine, in defending the French revolutionaries, complained of the distance that traditional institutions established between the citizen and the regime, which he described as an "artificial chasm [that] is filled up with a succession of barriers, or sort of turnpike gates, through which [the citizen] has to pass."
Conservative voices have defended these mediating layers PRECISELY FOR creating such barriers, which can GUARD the citizen from direct exposure to the searing power of the state. Alexis de Tocqueville CELEBRATED America's bewildering array of associations, institutions, and corporations of civil society for their ability to offer individual citizens some PROTECTION from the domineering sway of political majorities.
Edmund Burke, Paine's great nemesis, argued that such mediating structures also express in their very forms the actual shape of our society - evolved over time out of affectionate sentiments, practical needs, and common aspirations. "We begin our public affections in our families," Burke wrote. "We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill." To sweep them away and leave ONLY the citizen and the state would rob society of its sources of warmth, loyalty, and affinity, and of the most effective means of enacting significant social IMPROVEMENTS.
This difference of opinion about mediating institutions is no trifling matter. It gets at a profound and fundamental difference between the Left and the Right. The Left tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it enables the application of technical knowledge that can make our lives better, and that this knowledge can overcome our biggest problems. This is the technocratic promise of progressivism. The Right tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it has evolved to channel deep social knowledge through free institutions - knowledge that often cannot be articulated in technical terms but is the most important knowledge we have. For the LEFT, therefore, the mediating institutions (and at times even our constitutional forms) are OBSTACLES to the APPLICATION of liberal knowledge. For the RIGHT, the mediating institutions (and our constitutional forms) are the EMBODIMENT of liberal knowledge.
The Left's disdain for CIVIL society is thus driven above all not by a desire to empower the state without limit, but by a deeply held concern that the MEDIATING institutions in society - emphatically including the family, the church, and private enterprise - are instruments of prejudice, selfishness, backwardness, and resistance to change, and that in order to establish our national life on MORE RATIONAL grounds, the government NEEDS TO WEAKEN AND COUNTERACT them.
The Right's high regard for civil society, meanwhile, is driven above all not by a disdain for government but by a deeply held belief in the importance of our diverse and evolved societal forms, WITHOUT WHICH we could not hope to secure our LIBERTY. Conservatives seek mechanisms and institutions to bring implicit social knowledge to bear on our troubles, while Progressives seek the authority and power to bring explicit technical knowledge to bear on them....
To ignore what stands between the state and the citizen is to disregard the essence of American life. To CLEAR AWAY what stands BETWEEN the state and the citizen is to EXTINGUISH THE SOURCES OF AMERICAN FREEDOM. The president is right to insist that America works best when Americans work TOGETHER, but government is JUST ONE OF THE MANY things we do together, and it is only rarely the most important of them.
* * * * *Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This article appeared in the August 13, 2012, issue of National Review.
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