Posted by Matthew Tuininga
In his column today in the Washington Post Michael Gerson describes how President Barack Obama has made culture war central to his reelection campaign in a way that Mitt Romney has not. Romney, Gersom implies, wants to focus on the economy. Obama is eager to focus on anything but the economy. Gerson notes,
President Obama’s decision to lead with social issues in his reelection campaign — immigration, gay marriage and contraception — makes some political sense. His ideologically divisive performance in office has left him with no serious option but a base strategy. Cultural battles inspire the liberality of liberal donors. They may pump up turnout among target groups — Latinos, college-educated whites and single women. They can goad opponents into angry overreaction. And social debates, coincidentally, are an alternative to discussing the state of the economy.
One might question whether or not immigration is really an instance of the culture wars, but aside from that, Gerson seems to be on to something. Having spent most of this past week at Acton University, a conference held by the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it struck me just how seriously Obama’s challenges to religious liberty are taken by prominent Christian leaders. In one of the keynote addresses at the conference Eric Metaxas, author of a recent biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, challenged his audience of close to 1,000 to recognize the warning signs of a government encroaching upon religious liberty before it is too late. We are not in Bonhoeffer’s situation (Bonhoeffer was a pastor and covert resister of the Nazi regime in 1940s Germany), he was quick to point out, but we may be in a situation analogous to that of Bonhoeffer’s earlier life. State power is being used in such a way as to force religious and other civil institutions out of the public realm. Where the state demands the right to regulate everything in line with its own agenda, where religious and cultural institutions are rendered weak and helpless in comparison, anything can happen.
As Gerson puts it,
It is his assault on the liberty of religious institutions — forcing their complicity in the distribution of contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs — that remains the most dangerous overreach of Obama’s culture war… This issue concerns not just the outcome of an election but the nature of liberalism itself. In a free society, which should have priority: pluralism or the advance of liberal values?
Gerson points out that the growth of government is closely tied up with attempts to make all of society conform to a central, elite ideology, in the case of the Obama administration that of “liberalism.”
The task becomes easier as the role of government expands. The passage of Obamacare allowed the writing of regulations that impose a liberal value (sexual autonomy through cost-free contraception) on illiberal (Catholic) institutions. The Department of Health and Human Services prioritized the expansion of progressive rights over the claims of pluralism.
The establishment of the liberal view of autonomy as the single, publicly favored way of life is inherently aggressive. Why not use government power to undermine the resistance of private institutions to reproductive rights by giving funding only to charitable organizations that refer for abortions? The Obama administration already imposed this requirement on a recent grant dealing with human trafficking. So why not take a similar approach on gay rights or gender equality, denying public benefits to organizations with illiberal views? It is an apparently endless public mission.
It is also a recipe for endless culture war. Institutions targeted by government as backward will naturally resent it, and the members of those groups will feel alienated from a common public enterprise.
In the closing lecture of the Acton University, the institute’s founder and head Father Robert Sirico made a strong and passionate case for taking the Obama administration’s policy seriously as a threat not only to religious liberty, but to liberty in general. To be sure, Sirico acknowledged, the Catholic Church and its institutions are partly at fault for what has happened. They should never have taken the government money that enables the government to interfere so much in their internal affairs. In a free and virtuous society our goal should be to build up strong civil institutions that do not depend for survival or success on government. Whenever government tries to control and regulate social or economic affairs beyond what is necessary for basic peace, order, and justice it inevitably threatens to turn the civil institutions it regulates into virtual administrations of the state.
But is not the work of the Acton Institute simply a culture war in reverse? Do not many Christians simply seek to impose their own agenda and ideology by means of the power of the state? To be sure, I did hear some people at the Acton University talk in this way. While the speakers and attendees were very sensitive to liberal accretions on state power, there was less criticism of the ways in which conservatives have sought to use the state to advance their own ideology. In general, however, this was not the spirit of the conference. In general the speakers and lecturers recognized that it is vital for both freedom and virtue for government to be kept in its place.
As one speaker pointed out, Christians should not argue for a free market or capitalist society because Scripture or the Church has given us such a system. Rather, the moral case for a free market and for capitalism depends to a significant degree on the fact that it works. Principle, in that sense, is inseparable from pragmatism. If you want to help the poor, why would you support any system other than that which has done more to create economic growth and has lifted more people out of poverty than any other institution or force in the history of the world? If you value freedom, why not maximize it as much as is possible consistent with general prosperity, peace, and order?
That does not mean our arguments for a free economy should not be fundamentally moral. Human beings are fundamentally moral creatures and must always be addressed as such. That said, however, the arguments we make should not be designed to advance a particular ideological or religious agenda, but to appeal to human beings’ basic understanding of morality and truth in light of experience and sound scholarship. In short, while we may recognize that there are those who are launching a culture war on American society, our response should not be to launch a culture war of our own. On the contrary, our response should be to work as thoughtful, loving citizens, urging and convincing our fellow citizens of the best ideals, policies, and practices conducive to our prosperity as moral human beings. To put it another way, our aim should not be to conquer, but to win hearts and minds with the truth.