2nd Nov 2012

An Unexpected and Dangerous Trajectory

by George Weigel

The trajectory of history rarely follows a predictable arc.

Addressing the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during the 1960 presidential campaign, Sen. John F. Kennedy may have imagined that he was striking a blow for tolerance and inclusivity when he told the assembled Protestant pastors — many of whom could no more imagine a Catholic president than General Franco could imagine a Protestant Spain — that they need not fret: Catholic authorities would not influence his decisions as chief executive. In fact, what the first president baptized a Catholic did was to drive a wedge between religiously-informed moral conviction and public policy that has been exploited by politicians ever since.

One such politician was Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, a favorite would-be presidential candidate of the Great Mentioners. Cuomo went to the University of Notre Dame during the 1984 campaign and declared that, while he accepted the Church’s teaching on the inalienable right-to-life of the unborn, that teaching was a “religious value,” and it would be difficult to translate “our Catholic morality into civil law.” Cuomo may have thought he was laying down covering fire for Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, then the Democratic vice-presidential candidate and the governor’s fellow-New-York-ethnic-Catholic. But by ignoring the fact that the Church’s teaching on the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death is based on truths of the moral law that can be grasped by anyone willing to think seriously about them, Cuomo reinforced the myth that the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance and its opposition to abortion was somehow akin to the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

Thus the path was cleared, in the 2004 campaign, for yet another Massachusetts senator and baptized Catholic running for president, John Kerry, to declare that, as a man of the Constitution, he could not impose sectarian moral beliefs on a society of divergent moral opinions.

It seemed that matters could not get worse. Then came the Obama administration, which has mounted an unprecedented assault on religious freedom.

The character of that assault ought to have been clear from secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s 2009 speech on international human rights at Georgetown University. There, the Obama administration abandoned decades of U.S. government policy as its senior cabinet officer declined to defend the fundamental human right of religious freedom, referring instead to a “freedom to worship” that she bizarrely equated with the freedom to “love as we choose.”

That warning signal might easily have been missed. But no one paying attention ought to have missed the administration’s multi-year efforts to eliminate the “ministerial exception” to equal-employment law (which, if successful, might well have led to federal lawsuits , and thence court decisions, ordering the Catholic Church to ordain women as priests and bishops). In early 2012, the Supreme Court squashed that clumsy ploy, 9-0. Yet while the Court was putting the smackdown on the administration’s attempt to eradicate the “ministerial exception,” the administration continued to attack religious freedom on another front, as its Justice Department refused to defend in federal court a duly passed federal statute, the Defense of Marriage Act, thus tacitly suggesting that those who held to the classic understanding of marriage on religious grounds were irrational bigots.

Then things got really bad.

In January 2012, the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services rolled out a “mandate” that would require virtually all Catholic entities, and all conscientious Catholic employers, to include coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacient drugs in the health insurance they provided their employees. The Catholic Church, in other words, was to become a conduit by which the federal government imposed its understanding of “reproductive health” (which treats pregnancy as a disease) on the entire country. And if doing so violated Catholic teaching, well, too bad.

When a wide range of Catholic voices objected to the HHS mandate, the administration tried a faux-accommodation that was swiftly rejected by Church leaders. Thus, in the middle of the 2012 election campaign, more than forty Catholic entities sued the Obama administration for violating both the Constitution and the provisions of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Thus a surprising historical arc has led the United States, not simply to the privatization of religious and moral conviction implied by Kennedy’s 1960 speech in Houston, but to an unprecedented assault by the federal government, some five decades later, on what Americans have long cherished as the “first freedom” — religious liberty in full.

How did this happen?

It happened in part because of decades of misguided Supreme Court decisions that set the First Amendment’s ban on an “establishment of religion” against the same First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise of religion.” These two principles, once finely balanced, became imbalanced, such that “no establishment” trumped “free exercise” time and again. And because the law is a teacher, what a lot of American society and culture learned from the Supreme Court was that “free exercise” was something to be “accommodated” (as a widely-used constitutional law textbook put it). Thus the “free exercise of religion” was transformed, in many minds, from a bedrock principle of American democracy — an inalienable human right that government was bound to respect — to a matter of lifestyle choice that government could, if it wished, accommodate, so long as no one cried, “Establishment!”

More ominously, the aggressive secularism that had long been a part of European high culture migrated across the Atlantic in the wake of the Sixties and began to infect the American arts world, the American media, American higher education, and, ultimately, the federal government. Men and women of secular disposition have long been part of the American cultural and political scene, beginning with such notable Founders as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. And while Michael Dukakis’s religious tone-deafness was likely one of the factors that made it difficult for him to connect to voters in 1988, Dukakis’s secularism did not seem so much aggressive as reflexive and technocratic; the Massachusetts governor, and those like him, were claiming a place in the public conversation for those without deep faith or any faith — a place that no religious adherent to the Constitution would deny was theirs by right.

The secularism of the Obama administration and its most fervently secularist supporters — the sort of people who booed God three times at the 2012 Democratic Convention — is quite different. It is not tolerant, benign, and committed to pluralism; it is aggressive, hegemonic, and determined to rid the American public square of religious conviction and religiously-informed moral argument. It is closely allied to the pro-abortion and pro-“gay marriage” movements, in a coalition determined to impose lifestyle libertinism on the entire society by force of law — an American expression of what Pope Benedict XVI has rightly called the “dictatorship of relativism.”

This new and aggressive secularism, which claims the whole public square for itself, can and should be engaged: people of faith can, and should, make the arguments that make religious freedom in full make sense to their fellow-citizens, while offering, in their own lives, models of humaneness and compassion that give the lie to radical secularist stereotypes of religious believers. But above all, at this moment in our history, this aggressive and hegemonic secularism must be defeated electorally, so that it is clear to both major American political parties that the American people are determined to defend religious liberty in full.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)