Barack Obama and the new moral orthodoxy

Tom Swanson America’s Future Foundation
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In a recent audience with Italian government officials in Milan, Pope Benedict XVI exhorted the attendees to recommit themselves to freedom, saying “freedom is not a privilege for the few but a right for all, a valuable right which the civil power must guarantee.” This commitment to individual freedom from overbearing civil authority is a relatively recent development in the Catholic Church’s view of government, and it has gone largely unnoticed by the greater public.

While most people are familiar with the medieval Church’s theocratic mistakes in the trial of Galileo or the Spanish Inquisition, very few people realize that the modern Church has actually warmed up to the idea of a secular state. “Herein lies one of the principal elements of the secularism of the state,” Pope Benedict said later in his speech, “to guarantee freedom so that all may propose their own vision of common life.” Not only does this kind of statement refute the left’s traditional charge that the Church wants to “impose its morality” on all secular states, but it also denies the religious right’s misguided and repeated demands for just such impositions.

Religion’s role in American society has been open for debate for decades now, but Obamacare has brought the issue to the forefront of the national debate. One of the law’s provisions requires religious employers (and other conscientious objectors) to include family planning services in their employee health insurance plans. The Obama administration has denied religious organizations’ petitions for exemption. The mandate will take legal effect on August 1.

Ironically, the Obama administration is the one “imposing its morality” in this case. Catholic organizations are simply invoking their most basic First Amendment rights. President Obama and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are the ones making a moral argument. They argue that free contraceptives are a “right” and it is somehow immoral for employers not to pay for them, regardless of what employers’ consciences say on the matter.

In a strange twist of fate, religious institutions now find themselves under attack from America’s new theocracy: Obama, Sebelius and their ilk — would-be theocrats who seek to impose their own moral orthodoxy of collectivism, political correctness and statism. Now it is the president, not the Church, who wants to circumvent the rule of law for the sake of imposing his vision of morality and social justice. The administration’s will to enforce its own moral dogma, rather than the Constitution, is the seed of theocracy.

Predictably, the political left is trying to spin Obama’s and Sebelius’s behavior as a defense of the separation of church and state. Separation of church and state is important, but this is a total misapplication of the principle. Building a secular state does not mean stripping religious groups of their constitutional rights. In this case, the state is interfering with religious institutions, not vice versa. The separation of church and state is being threatened — by the state.

In his speech, Pope Benedict explicitly acknowledged the “different and distinct aims and roles of the civil authority and the Church.” Does this sound like someone who is interested in forcing his moral code on the unwilling? After centuries of building and supporting theocratic regimes in Europe, the Catholic Church has recognized the wisdom of maintaining a secular state, wherein “all may propose their own vision of common life” and church and state are free to pursue their “different and distinct aims” within society.

However, as constitutionalists marshal their forces to defend freedom of religion, the religious right also needs to take Benedict’s words to heart. The state does not exist to enforce the mysterious theological tenets of any religion or creed. It is neither interested in nor capable of enforcing religious dogma or saving immortal souls. This does not mean the state should be immoral; it means the state should be amoral.

The Obama administration and the religious right need to recognize what our founding fathers recognized: that a truly just government is one that defends liberty. A just government allows the free exchange of goods and ideas, and encourages the private missions of churches, charities and individuals. Above all, a just government permits all free minds to seek truth according to their own reason and live according to their own consciences.

Tom Swanson is the Programs and New Media Intern at the America’s Future Foundation and a senior at the University of Notre Dame. You can contact him at tswanso1@nd.edu.