The Obama administration has thus been consistently and aggressively at war with classic understandings of religious freedom. That is why the coalition in defence of religious freedom that has now formed because of the HHS mandate is by no means exclusively Catholic. It includes evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, and secular people who do not accept the teaching of the Catholic Church on the morality of family planning, but who believe deeply in broad religious freedom. Thus such instant celebrities as Ms Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law school student who enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame because she nicely fitted the media narrative of a young woman oppressed by elderly male Catholic bishops, represent the forces that have taken a profoundly anti-pluralist position in this debate, insisting that one-size-fits-all when it comes to preventive health services. The Catholic bishops and their allies, on the other hand, have been and will remain the defenders of genuine pluralism, against the narrowness of an administration in which ideology trumps both democratic principle and political reality in most cases.
Which brings the debate down to its inner circle, the third of the concentric circles of argument here. That the Obama administration is the most aggressively secularist in American history ought to be clear from its shabby record on religious freedom, at home and abroad. At the same time, and perhaps not coincidentally, the Obama administration is the most statist in American history — the most enamoured of centralised governmental power as a means of implementing both public policy and what it regards as desirable cultural change. For all his vaunted history as a community organiser — itself vastly overblown — President Obama seems singularly insensitive to the multiple communities that make up the American Republic: those communities and institutions of civil society that, for Alexis de Tocqueville, were the sinews and musculature of American democracy. The HHS mandate is a powerful example of an overweening government trying to bring a civil society institution to heel — and threatening it with financial calamity should it refuse. So was the administration's attempt to rewrite employment law and turn religious institutions into departments of the federal government. The same impulse is at work in both instances. The state will fill every available inch of space in the public square, bludgeoning out of the way those who resist.
And notwithstanding the fact that Obamacare portends fiscal disaster for the United States (and, ultimately, for the world), this Hobbesian impulse is the deepest, most disturbing, and most urgent problem with the administration's signature legislative achievement: it centralises power over a vast part of the American economy in an unprecedented way, driving both individuals and civil society institutions to the margins of public life by compelling certain behaviours from the former and turning the latter into virtual departments of the state. The stakes here have been nowhere better defined than by the political scientist Yuval Levin, one of the Anglosphere's leading young commentators on Edmund Burke. He writes:
The administration is clearly determined to see civil society as merely an extension of the state, and to clear out civil society — clearing out the mediating layers between the individual and the state — when it seems to stand in the way of achieving the president's agenda. The idea is to leave as few non-individual players as possible in the private sphere, and to turn those few that are left into agents of the government. This is the logic of the administration's approach to the private economy, not just to civil society. It is key to the design of Obamacare (which aims to yield massive consolidation in the insurance sector, leaving just a handful of very large insurers that would function as public utilities while strangling all the others with red tape), and much of the regulatory agenda of the Left. And it is all the more so the character of the administration's approach to charitable institutions. It is an attack on mediating institutions of all sorts, moved by the genuine belief that they are obstacles to a good society. This approach is especially noxious and pernicious when it is directed at religiously affiliated institutions — both because they deserve special standing and because they do some of the hardest and most needful work of charity in our society. We should use every available means to protect those institutions from this mortal danger...But as we do so, we should not forget that we are dealing with an instance of a larger and deeper danger, and we should do what we can to combat that danger in its own terms.
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