Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

24 February 2012

Two cheers for the welfare state

The welfare state consists of a network of public, financial benefits originally established to even out the boom and bust extremes of the business cycle. In the United States, the welfare state got its start with President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and continued with President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

Although the welfare state's existence is not especially controversial outside of libertarian circles, a number of related issues merit reflection. First, does the state possess the normative competence to provide a diverse array of services beyond its core functions of making and executing the law, as well as judging under the law? Second, does the state bear a legitimate responsibility for resolving social issues such as poverty, unemployment, homelessness and disease?

Read more at Capital Commentary's website.


02 February 2012

Obama and religious freedom

I have thus far largely refrained from criticizing President Obama on this blog, even as I was put off by the messianic expectations he encouraged during his first presidential campaign four years ago and have been uneasy about his performance since then. But his attack on the religious freedom of overtly confessional institutions requires comment, which Michael Gerson ably provides here: Obama plays his Catholic allies for fools.
The implications of Obama’s power grab go further than contraception and will provoke opposition beyond Catholicism. Christian colleges and universities of various denominations will resist providing insurance coverage for abortifacients. And the astounding ambition of this federal precedent will soon be apparent to every religious institution. Obama is claiming the executive authority to determine which missions of believers are religious and which are not — and then to aggressively regulate institutions the government declares to be secular. It is a view of religious liberty so narrow and privatized that it barely covers the space between a believer’s ears.

Obama’s decision also reflects a certain view of liberalism. Classical liberalism was concerned with the freedom to hold and practice beliefs at odds with a public consensus. Modern liberalism uses the power of the state to impose liberal values on institutions it regards as backward. It is the difference between pluralism and anti-­clericalism.

I am not an enthusiast for the betrayal of liberalism thesis to which Gerson appeals, because I believe the contempt for nonvoluntary institutions is implicit in liberalism's logic from the outset. Nevertheless, Gerson persuasively points to the link between liberalism's claim to defend liberty and its narrowly individualistic interpretation of that liberty. Let us hope and pray that the policy will be changed before it is implemented.



01 February 2012

Religious liberty and civil society

Controversy continues south of the border: Religious Liberty and Civil Society. Yuval Levin plausibly explains the origin of the current confusion over the definition of religious freedom in English-speaking democracies:
The English common law tradition of religious toleration, which we inherited, has always had a problem with religious institutions that are not houses of worship—i.e. that are geared to ends other than the practice of religion itself. To (vastly) oversimplify for a moment, that tradition began (in the 16th century, and in some respects even earlier) with the aim of protecting Protestant dissenters and Jews but (very intentionally) not protecting Catholics. And the way it took shape over the centuries in an effort to sustain that distinction was by drawing a line between individual religious practice (in which the government could not interfere) and an institutional religious presence (which was given far less protection).

Because Catholicism is a uniquely institutional religion—with large numbers of massive institutions for providing social services, educating children and adults, and the like, all of which are more or less parts of a single hierarchy—this meant Catholics were simply not granted the same protection as others. Obviously the intent to treat Catholics differently has for the most part fallen away since then, but the evolved legal tradition is very much with us, and it is not a coincidence that it always seems to be the Catholic Church that gets caught up in these situations when the government overreaches. . . .

Does civil society consist of a set of institutions that help the government achieve its purposes as it defines them when their doing so might be more efficient or convenient than the state’s doing so itself, or does civil society consist of an assortment of efforts by citizens to band together in pursuit of mutual aims and goods as they understand them? Is it an extension of the state or of the community?