05 February 2013

Gerson on Obama

Yesterday's Washington Post carried this article by Michael Gerson: Obama’s new contraception rules try to fool Catholics. This is in response to President Obama's latest effort to soften the impact of the Health and Human Services mandate, which many see as a threat to religious freedom. Gerson's final paragraphs are worth reading:

But President Obama’s policy does not strike me as cynical. Disturbing, but not cynical. The administration has never shown a particularly high regard for institutional religious liberty. Obama’s Justice Department, in last year’s Hosanna-Tabor case, argued that there should be no “ministerial exception” at all — a contention the Supreme Court labeled “amazing.” In this case, the administration views access to contraception as an individual right to be guaranteed by the government, and institutional religious rights as an obstacle and inconvenience. But the First Amendment, it is worth remembering, was designed as an obstacle and inconvenience to the government.

All this is evidence of a deeper debate. Liberalism, back to John Locke, has understood religion to be a fundamentally private matter. It has a difficult time understanding the existence of loyalties outside the law, and often views them as dangerous (unless the demands of faith are harmless and picturesque, like the Amish). But this is not the way many religious people understand religion. They view it as the grounding for a vision of justice, and the source of standards for a community of believers.

It has been part of the American miracle to balance individual rights with institutional religious freedom — a difficult task for which the Obama administration shows little appetite. So now it falls to the courts.

What I find remarkable about this is that, unlike many Americans, Gerson clearly discerns the ambiguous influence on his country of John Locke, a conventionally religious 17th-century philosopher who nevertheless sought to recast state, church and marriage alike as voluntary associations, thereby emptying them of their distinctive institutional characters. Such refashioning called for the privatization of ultimate religious beliefs, ironically in the name of tolerance. One hopes that the Obama administration will come to recognize religious freedom, not as exceptional, but as basic to doing public justice. Thus far the prospects do not look especially promising.

Given this context, I commend strongly the work of my friend Stanley Carlson-Thies and the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, whose declared purpose is "safeguarding the faith of faith-based organizations." IRFA deserves our prayers and support.

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