While the recent contraceptive mandate controversy has exposed the Obama Administration’s disregard for religious freedoms, it has also reveled their natural disdain for subsidiarity. As George Weigel notes, this incident tells us “something very important, and very disturbing, about the cast of mind in the Executive Branch.”
Yesterday AEI hosted a lively discussion between Jonah Goldberg and Matt Welch on the question, “Are Libertarians Part of the Conservative Movement?” I’ve got a piece appearing tomorrow at Comment that will discuss the “fusionist” project and the relationship between so-called economic or “market” conservatives and social or “communitarian” conservatives.
At this point, though, I’ll simply point out a distinction I’ve made in the past between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view. The former, I think, is largely compatible with and an important part of the broader conservative political movement. The latter, however, is much more problematic. Libertarianism as a political philosophy emphasizes the proper role and functions of a limited government, and asks critically of each policy, as Goldberg notes, “Should government really be doing this?” This question is one that is, in my view, an absolutely indispensable and welcome component of the conservative movement.
Libertarianism as a world-and-life view, however, understands personal choice as the highest good and interprets everything else in light of that single guiding principle. These kinds of libertarians do not hold to a view of the world in which choice must be directed to any objective good or correspond to the moral order. No, rather, choice itself is opposed to any form of constraint, moral or otherwise. The exercise of the will is itself the supreme act of human freedom. (These, I think, are Kirk’s “chirping sectaries.”) This kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with a conservative vision of the good society, although there are probably still cases in which such libertarians and conservatives can be effective co-belligerents. I would add that this kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with the Christian faith, and in many cases much more likely to be substituted for or conflated with Christianity. Libertarianism as a world-and-life view is an ideological competitor to the Christian faith.
Respective definitions of liberty are absolutely essential to distinguishing various strands of libertarianism. Are we simply free to choose, or free to choose the good? How is the good defined, and in relation to what (the moral order?) or who (myself? God?) is it defined? Here I’ll submit Lord Acton’s definition as representative of a good answer, from the kind of classical liberal who oriented freedom to the good: “Liberty is not the ability to do what you want, but the right to do what you ought.”
When we are asking the kinds of questions raised by last night’s AEI discussion, it’s important to define our terms and clarify precisely who and what we are discussing. Libertarianism is an inherently diverse phenomenon, with a rather dizzying spectrum of perspectives unified around some core commitments. But precisely how these core commitments animate and are placed in relationship to the broader vision of the common good (if there even is such a vision) is widely divergent. A presentation by Nigel Ashford at an IHS event once outlined at least 5 basic types (with attendant subgroupings) on a continuum, you might say, of libertarianism. (It so happens, usually, that whoever is to the left of you on the spectrum is cast as a “socialist” of some form or another.)
I’ll have some more to say related to my piece tomorrow at Comment, but here I’ll just note that my conclusions about the prospects for fusionism (social and economic conservatives need each other now perhaps more than ever) are largely shared with those in Hunter Baker’s essay, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Find Common Ground?” and commend Baker’s article to your attention.
Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Acton’s Rome Office, was called upon this morning by America’s Morning News to weigh in with the view from Rome on the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate that most employers – including religious institutions – provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs as part of health care coverage. He did so, and you can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:
Previous Acton commentary on the mandate decision:
Audio: Dr. Donald Condit on the Trampling of Conscience Protections
Jayabalan: Obamacare vs. the Catholic Bishops
Dr. Samuel Gregg: Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism
In his classic book Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks the critical question for the Christian life in today’s world: “What could the call to follow Jesus mean today for the worker, the businessman, the farmer, or the soldier?” This question is a corollary of another, more basic, question: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” If Christ is Lord, then what does his lordship mean for the lives of his followers?
In a worthwhile post over at Out of Ur, Skye Jethani explores the implications of Christ’s call to discipleship for our work, “where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit.”
Jethani updates and sharpens questions related to Bonhoeffer’s famous discipleship question:
What does it mean to be in business to glorify God and bless others?
How does Christ want me to engage the health care sector?
Does being an artist matter to God?
How do I serve in the public school system as a follower of Christ?
Apart from not being dishonest, does it matter how I run my business?
I’ve been offered two jobs, how do I discern which one to take? Does it matter?
Can I be a soldier and be a Christian?
Does my work have any meaning apart from the money I earn and give to the church?
One of the consistent refrains from established denominations nowadays is concern over how to connect with younger generations of believers, to keep them from leaving the church, and show that the Christian faith is relevant to a contemporary world. A good place to start is to ask and begin to answer the questions that Bonhoeffer and Jethani have posed.
But as Jethani warns, such efforts must be undertaken not just as a rearguard stratagem: “Developing a theology of work and vocation-based-discipleship is not a silver bullet to slow the exodus of young adults from the church. But I am increasingly convinced that it is a significant blind spot for much of the Western church that must be remedied.”
In his treasure of a book on the subject, Lester DeKoster goes so far as to call work “the meaning of your life.” It is of central importance for followers of Christ to understand, articulate, and live out the way in which the Gospel shapes and determines the meaning of life “to the full.”
“If there was ever any doubt about one of the Obama Administration’s key philosophical commitments,” writes Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg in a new article in the American Spectator, “it was dispelled on Jan. 20 when the Department of Health and Human Services informed the Catholic Church that most of its agencies will be required to provide employees with insurance-coverage for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs: i.e., products, procedures, and chemicals used to facilitate acts which the Church and plenty of others consider intrinsically evil.”
Gregg writes that “modern liberalism has a long history of trying to exclude consideration of the proper ends of human action from public discourse in the name of tolerance. But neither liberalism nor secularism are as neutral about such matters as they pretend.” In fact, that neutrality looks more and more like coercion. Gregg:
And here we come face-to-face with the essence of what a certain Joseph Ratzinger famously described in an April 2005 homily as “the dictatorship of relativism.” Most people think of tyrannies as involving the imposition of a defined set of ideas upon free citizens. Benedict XVI’s point was that the coercion at the heart of the dictatorship of relativism derives precisely from the fact that it “does not recognize anything as definitive.”
In this world, tolerance no longer creates the safety for us to express our views about the nature of good and evil and its implications for law and public morality. Instead, it serves to banish the truth as the reference point against which all of us must test our ideas and beliefs. The objective is to reduce everyone to modern Pontius Pilates who, whatever their private beliefs, wash their hands in the face of obvious injustices, such as what the Obama administration has just inflicted upon not only Catholics, but anyone whose convictions about the truth requires them to abstain from cooperating in acts they regard as evil per se.
Of course, modern liberals do have their preferred ends, which (despite all their endless chatter about reason) reflect their profoundly cramped vision of man’s intellect. Here they follow the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. He argued that “reason ought to be the slave of the passions.” Reason’s role, in other words, is not to identify what is rational for people to choose. Instead, reason is reduced to merely devising the means for realizing whatever goals that people, following the profound moral reasoning of a five year-old, “just feel like” choosing.
Read Samuel Gregg’s “Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism” on the website of the American Spectator.
In the journal Foreign Affairs, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg offers an analysis of the Vatican’s recent pronouncements on economic policy, most notably the document issued in October titled “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” (also called “The Note”). The Church, Gregg said, “wanted to attract the attention of world leaders as they assembled to discuss ongoing turmoil in financial markets at the G-20 Summit in Cannes and to add its voice to those arguing for capital controls (such as the “Tobin tax”) to discourage international financial speculation.” But, he argues, advocating a world economic authority could work against the interests of developing nations, including those heavily Catholic:
… a world authority could pit the economic interests of Catholics in developed countries against those in developing nations, creating challenges for how the Church presents its teachings about economic issues to Catholics throughout the world. Many countries throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia are in a fundamentally different economic and geopolitical place from those of the ailing EU. The Church must thus deepen its appreciation of how the global operation of economic factors such as comparative advantage, incentives, and tradeoffs has different impacts upon Catholics living in very dissimilar economic circumstances. But this also has implications for the Church’s position concerning the economic functions to be assumed by a world authority. Such responsibilities, for example, could primarily concern promoting greater economic integration through removing obstacles to trade. This, however, would be incompatible with the Note’s theme that a world authority’s economic functions should be focused upon securing greater control over the pace of change through international regulations that, if implemented, would significantly impede the free movement of people, goods, and capital.
Read “The Vatican’s Calls for Global Financial Reform” by Samuel Gregg on the website of Foreign Affairs.
Jordan Ballor has already ably commented on President Obama’s recent comments on taxation and Christian social responsibility. Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico now joins the fray, having been called upon by Fox News Channel to add his insight to the discussion. In case you missed yesterday’s appearance on “Your World with Neil Cavuto,” we’ve got it for you.
Much has been made already about President Obama’s comments yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast concerning the Christian faith’s teachings about social responsibility. During his time at the breakfast, the president opined that getting rid of tax breaks for wealthy Americans amounted to a Christian obligation:
In a time when many folks are struggling and at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually thinks that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, from to whom much is given, much shall be required.
As Breanne Howe has pointed out (HT: The Transom), the text itself has to do with the basic idea of stewardship (the best resource for exploring the truly biblical conception of stewardship in its fullness is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible). I do think Howe draws a bit too sharply the lines between obligations and giving, as she writes, “Giving out of obligation is not truly giving, it’s merely following the rules.” There’s a complex relationship between legal requirements, moral obligations, and Christian gratitude that can’t be summed up by simply juxtaposing Christian charitable giving and government taxation.
But at the same time, paying your taxes can’t be simply conflated with meeting Christian social obligations, either. Christians are to pay taxes, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that Christian social responsibility is reducible to paying taxes.
More problematic, perhaps, is this latter identification, with our responsibilities before God being transferred to our responsibilities to government. If the president can use a text like Luke 12:48 to argue for progressive taxation, then what kind of tax policy should we implement on the basis of Luke 19:24-26?
Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’
“‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’
“He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
It’s too easy and sometimes irresistibly tempting to move directly from the text of Scripture to the text of legislation.
Prooftexting for the purpose of political posturing does violence to the Scriptures and damages our public discourse. That might be the most important political lesson arising from yesterday’s breakfast.
I just completed a very short interview on Vatican Radio to discuss the current battle between the Obama administration and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It didn’t permit me to say more than that the Obama administration is making a political mistake, so I’d like to say a bit more about the serious consequences that will likely result and how we ended up with this Church-State conundrum in the first place.
As Dr. Donald Condit has already explained, the Obama administration seems to be making a political calculation that this controversy will blow over before the November’s presidential election because the conscience exemption for providing and paying for abortion, sterilization and contraception will not take effect until later next year. But the miscalculation was predictable and is now evident, with not only Catholics, but Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish and other religious leaders taking a stand. Unless the administration relents or the Obamacare law is ruled unconstitutional, Catholic hospitals and other institutions will be faced with a choice between not providing insurance coverage to their employees and thereby be fined by the government, or pay for the provision of services that they believe are morally evil.
A journalist friend in Rome just raised an alternative reading of the story to me on the street. What if Obama is actually making a principled argument that abortion, sterilization and contraception services are a fundamental aspect of women’s health that cannot and should not be denied to anyone, regardless of their own religious or individual convictions? Perhaps the White House believes, as most progressives do, that these stodgy, uptight opponents will eventually, inevitably, be overcome and we will one day wonder what all the fuss about. If so, the administration is doing much more than thinking about the next election; it’s redefining what the word “health” means to include measures that violently take away life from the most innocent and vulnerable persons, regardless of who pays for the services. This makes it much more than a religious freedom or a conscience issue and a matter of simple justice.
More generally, the whole Obamacare mess is a result of employer-provided health insurance. We would all be better off if our health insurance was decoupled from our employment, and we were free to purchase our own insurance according to our needs and wants. It is a result of state intervention in the economy, namely wage-and-price controls, that led to employers offering health insurance as a non-wage benefit to entice desired employees to their companies. Now we have the government mandating that all employers must provide comprehensive coverage to all their employees. What was once a prudential individual decision has become a government-mandated “right” that trumps the employer-employee, the doctor-patient, and perhaps even the priest-penitent relationship. Some progress.
There is some tragic irony to all this. We should not forget that many religious leaders have long-supported increasing the role of the state in health care and the economy at-large, perhaps thinking that conscience clauses would protect their institutions against any undue interference. Well, they were wrong; what the state giveth, the state taketh away. If you invite the state to “assist” more and more of your activities, it will eventually start telling you how to do things. Encouraging the Democratic Party’s efforts from Harry Truman on to socialize the health care system of the United States is likely to have dire consequences for Catholic and other religious-based social service providers. Economic ignorance among religious leaders comes at a very high cost to their own good works.
Update, Feb. 2: the Assembly of Bishops issued a press release to “adamantly protest” the HHS mandate.
On the Observer blog of the American Orthodox Institute, I look at the non-reaction of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America to the recent Obama administration mandate that forces most employers and insurers to provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs free of charge. More specifics here. The Assembly of Bishops, charged with the “common witness” for Orthodox Christians in America, was also missing in action during the 2012 March for Life.
Towards the conclusion of this article, I say:
… we can’t dismiss this problem by saying that the Orthodox, broadly speaking, don’t get institutionally involved in politics. Far from it. How else can you explain the churches’ long membership in the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, Protestant-dominated bodies that exist to put a patina of theological legitimacy on leftist economic and political ideologies?
Patriarch Bartholomew is all too ready to talk about how the Church invented hospitals more than 1,600 years ago, as he did in a 2009 speech sponsored by the Center for American Progress and Georgetown University in Washington. He even noted that these Byzantine hospitals were “public institutions, free of charge and created for the public good.” Although the patriarch stopped short of backing the Obama administration’s health care initiative before this liberal/progressive audience, he endorsed the notion that “every member of society, from the greatest to the least” deserves the best quality healthcare.
But Patriarch Bartholomew and his lobbyists are nowhere to be found when 21st Century American hospitals are feeling the heat from an administration trampling on conscience protections. We’re talking about hundreds of hospitals founded by Catholics, Jews and Protestants and serving people in real need — today and not in some idealized forever-gone past.
In stark contract to the Orthodox bishops, some 135 Roman Catholic bishops in the United States — and counting — have spoken out on this mandate.
Also see this reaction from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on Associated Baptist Press: “Mohler says insurance mandate not just ‘Catholic’ issue”.
Read “Orthodox Bishops Assembly Silent on Moral Issues” on the Observer blog of the American Orthodox Institute.