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Limited Government, Religious Liberty, and Joe Biden's Rosary

I was talking to a friend in California yesterday about the Obama administration’s latest assault on religious liberty -- the “interim final rule” issued by the Department of Health and Human Services requiring all health plans, including those at Catholic institutions, to cover prescription contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion. Paul Rahe, in a brilliant historical reflection called “American Catholicism’s Pact with the Devil,” shows how this latest example of government-by-decree “unmasked in the most thoroughgoing way the despotic propensities of the administrative entitlements state and of the Democratic Party.” Mr. Rahe also shows how closely the Roman Catholic establishment has collaborated in that despotism since its embrace of the New Deal in the 1930s.

Step back even further. We’re always hearing people -- well, some people -- go on about the ideals of “limited government.” It was, remember, a leitmotif of The Federalist and other founding documents of the United States. Government should be limited to protect the individual, and groups of individuals, from the coercive power of the state.

If you were writing at the end of the 18th century, you had another historical reality fresh in your memory: Religious strife. It was something that John Locke, among others, conjured with. How can we maintain a secular state that fosters freedom given the competing claims of various sects? Here at the beginning of the 21st century, we may have forgotten the horrible metabolism of  that strife (though I suspect we shall soon be reminded of it, courtesy the “religion of peace”). But Paul Rahe is correct that it presented a problem that was “almost insuperable”: “how to secure peace and domestic tranquillity in a world marked by sectarian competition?” Locke’s solution, which was the solution Madison and his colleagues adopted for the United States, was limited government. “In the nascent American republic,” Mr. Rahe writes:

This principle was codified in its purest form in the First Amendment to the Constitution. But it had additional ramifications as well -- for the government’s scope was limited also in other ways. There were other amendments that made up what we now call the Bill of Rights, and many of the states prefaced their constitutions with bills of rights or added them as appendices. These were all intended to limit the scope of the government. They were all designed to protect the right of individuals to life, liberty, the acquisition and possession of property, and the pursuit of happiness as these individuals understood happiness. Put simply, liberty of conscience was part of a larger package.

This much, I believe, even the most progressive among us would assent to.

Progressives, would assent, that is, to one side of the equation, the side that deployed all those nice-sounding words: Life! Liberty! Happiness! Even the Acquisition of Property (so long as it wasn’t too much). What’s not to like?

What guaranteed all those lovely things was the other side of the equation, limited government, i.e., government that did some few things but expressly did not do other things, not because they weren’t worth doing but because 1) they were outside the scope of a government that was limited by design to foster freedom and 2) to unchain government would be to undermine freedom. It was just this, Mr. Rahe points out, that “the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church forgot”:

In the 1930s, the majority of the bishops, priests, and nuns sold their souls to the devil, and they did so with the best of intentions. In their concern for the suffering of those out of work and destitute, they wholeheartedly embraced the New Deal. They gloried in the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Frances Perkins -- a devout Anglo-Catholic laywoman who belonged to the Episcopalian Church but retreated on occasion to a Catholic convent -- Secretary of Labor and the first member of her sex to be awarded a cabinet post. And they welcomed Social Security -- which was her handiwork. They did not stop to ponder whether public provision in this regard would subvert the moral principle that children are responsible for the well-being of their parents. They did not stop to consider whether this measure would reduce the incentives for procreation and nourish the temptation to think of sexual intercourse as an indoor sport. They did not stop to think.