The Nation's Pulse

Liberal Imperialism

By From the April 2012 issue

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There is a certain kind of inside-the-beltway conservative (you know the type) who emerges from his cocoon from time to time with the good news that all is well in America. "We're a center-right country," he tells us. "It can't happen here." The guarantee of individual liberty expressed in the Declaration of Independence, central to which is our tradition of religious liberty, is enshrined in the Constitution. We might debate the extent of the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause, but unlike the French we never had an anti-clerical party that bashes churches. In the guerres franco-françaises, from 1789 on, one took sides with either the Church or the Republic, but never both.

Admirably, my conservative thinks well of his country—but he should get out more often. If "it" means a sharp turn to the left, that certainly has happened in the last three years. As for religion, the HHS mandates, which would force religious believers to violate their conscience by offering contraceptive and abortifacient drugs to their employees, are really about anti-clericalism. The Administration seeks to justify the mandates as a means of serving women's health, but no one really believes that. Pregnancy isn't an illness, and drugs that prevent or terminate a pregnancy don't make people healthy. Even apart from that, the dollars in question are so trivial that no one is hard done by if she has to buy the pills herself. The cost of the "free" prescription is about $100 a year at Walmart, the price for a movie and dinner for two at Red Lobster. People on the left complain that, by opposing the contraception mandate, the Church is denying women contraceptives, but that's only true if I am denied a dinner at Red Lobster because I have to pay for it out of my pocket. People who believe that also believe, with Big Brother, that Freedom equals Slavery.

So all that is a subterfuge behind what is really going on, which is picking a fight with the Church. For the Administration, that's a winner, for three reasons. First, anything that distracts attention from important issues is a godsend, and resurrecting the culture wars does just that. The economy is in the tank, Iran is about to get nuclear weapons, and what does the mainstream media want to talk about? A $100 a year prescription!

Second, keeping the focus on religion gives Democrats an opportunity to beat up on Republicans. Democrats poll-tested the question last summer, and came away thinking that, by taking on the Church, they'd win more votes among women and the radical left than they'd lose among Catholics. That's even more so if Santorum wins the Republican nomination, which explains the timing of the announcement. Here is noted philosopher Bill Press on Santorum and his religion: "It's perfectly acceptable for Rick Santorum to hold and preach those beliefs about sexuality, no matter how medieval. But he's running for president of the United States, not for pope." With his finger on the pulse of American voters, Press goes on to predict a 50-state landslide for Obama over the issue.

The Sisters for Life have protested that the new rule tramples on their right to practice their religion.

Each of us will be required by law to obtain health insurance, or face fines. Since this HHS mandate will require every insurer to include abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and artificial contraception, we will not be able to obtain any coverage that is free from those "services," and we will be forced to pay for them directly. Since we are neither employers, nor employees, of any religious institution, we cannot even take advantage of the "religious exemption" contained in the new regulations or the "compromise."

The Sisters describe themselves as a "contemplative/active religious community," which means that they're almost as other-worldly as my inside-the-beltway conservative. What they haven't realized is that limiting their religious freedom is the very point of the bill. Their mistake is the one James Bond made in Goldfinger. Agent 007 is strapped down on the table, unable to move, as the death ray creeps slowly toward him. "Do you expect me to talk?" he asks. And Goldfinger smiles. "No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!" Now, no one wants the good sisters to die. All the Administration wants is to convert them to the church of Saint Nancy Pelosi. They've been a great annoyance. They go on marches and the like. Of course the press never notices them, but still they're an oppositionist movement. And for all their talk of "rights," these are the same people who would deny the rights of loving homosexual partners to adopt children.

After taking some flack on this, Obama came out with an "accommodation," an accounting gimmick in which insurance companies are required to provide the drugs "for free," a tactic that stripped away many of the rule's critics, the Washington Post, left-wing Catholics, libertarians. If the prior rule was offensive, however, the "accommodation" is even more so because, without relaxing the requirement, it insults one's intelligence. Only the deeply stupid and economically illiterate would believe that insurers will offer a costly service without passing on the cost to their insureds. The accommodation slaps the Sisters for Life in the face and then, compounding the humiliation, tells them to pretend that the slap never happened. It's also amusing that an Administration which complains of the financial burden of having to pay for the prescription out of one's pocket tells us, out of the other side of its mouth, that the cost is so trivial that the insurer will do it at no charge. If that were the case, why was Nancy Pelosi, barking madness apart, so worked up about this?

There's a third reason why the issue is a winning one for liberals. The Church is one of those inconvenient institutions interposed between the president and the people. When one has direct knowledge of the good, as the liberal does, and a president with whom one agrees, intermediary institutions simply get in the way. If they articulate a different political or moral vision, they're Bill Press's medieval church. If they provide social services, schools, hospitals, adoption agencies, they are doing what government should be doing, and often with a dangerously illiberal agenda.

And it's not just the Church. There's also the Supreme Court, whose Citizens United decision Obama regularly takes on, remarkably to their faces in his 2010 State of the Union speech. Then too there's Congress, which sadly has been given the power, under the Constitution, to oppose the will of the president. "What's frustrating people," Obama said, "is that I haven't been able to force Congress to implement every aspect of what I said in 2008." (Those darn Founders! Maybe I'll recess appoint my entire cabinet next time around.) Then there are charitable organizations, which Obama wants to shrink by limiting charitable deductions. Who needs them, when government should be doing it all? There also are families, who shockingly send their children to school with turkey sandwiches and not the Chicken McNuggets approved by the Department of Education. Finally, there are the states and American federalism. Libertarians have properly complained that a government which can force people to buy health insurance (without invoking the taxing power) can require people to eat broccoli. Or possibly arugula, were it up to Michelle Obama. What seems not to have been noticed is that Obamacare is also an issue about federalism, or would have been so but for the expansive view courts take of the Commerce Clause ("the feds always win").

For libertarians, it's always about Man vs. the State. For statists too, it's the same line-up, only this time the state always wins. Conservatives view it differently, as we see a need for intermediary institutions between man and the state. They give people the meaningful diversity that comes with a range of choices, and the information about how to live and how we should be governed that Washington cannot alone provide. That is why anti-clericalism is so dangerous. It does more than trample on individual rights. It also attacks an institution which permits its members to flourish in solidarity with each other, and which, merely by existing, defends their freedom. When every other barrier to oppression is removed, in a Poland or a China, what remains are churches faithful to their mission.

Our modern liberal is an imperialist, you see. He would treat everyone equally, and to ensure equality would refuse to recognize any intermediary institution. "To the Jews as Frenchmen, everything," said Napoleon. "To the Jews as Jews, nothing." For what are the Sisters for Life, after all, except a number of female citizens, and a small number at that? To them as Catholics, nothing; to them as citoyennes, the state offers Ortho Tri-Cyclen!

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About the Author

F.H. Buckley is Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law and author of The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.