Politics, et Cetera

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Wednesday, July 2, 2013

They Said It:

And as the observance of the ordinances of religion is the cause of the greatness of a State, so their neglect is the occasion of its decline; since a Kingdom without fear of God must either fall to pieces, or must be maintained by the fear of some prince who supplies that influence not supplied by religion.  But since the lives of princes are short, the life of this prince, also, and with it his influence, must soon come to an end; whence it happens that a kingdom which rests wholly on the qualities of its prince, lasts for a brief time only; because these qualities, terminating with his life, are rarely renewed in his successor . . . 

Princes and commonwealths that would save themselves from growing corrupted, should before all things keep uncorrupted the rites and ceremonies of religion, and always hold them in reverence; since we can have no surer sign of the decay of a province than to see Divine worship held therein in contempt.  This is easily understood when it is seen on what foundation that religion rests in which a man is born.  For every religion has its root in certain fundamental ordinances peculiar to itself . . .

And it will be plain to anyone who carefully studies Roman History, how much religion helped in disciplining the army, in uniting the people, in keeping good men good, and putting bad men to shame . . . for when religion is established you may readily bring in arms; but where you have arms without religion it is not easy afterwards to bring in religion . . .

Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, 1531.



Last Friday, the Obama administration released its final rule on the “birth control mandate.”   And lo, it contained the controversial provision that all employers would have to provide health insurance that covers birth control, sterilization, and abortifacients. Needless to say, this provision is an egregious attack on the religious beliefs of a very large segment of the American public, who have been fighting in vain for the inclusion of a “conscience clause” ever since the proposed rule was introduced some eighteen months ago.

The fallout from this refusal of the administration to respect the beliefs of those Americans who believe that abortion is a sin against God could be extremely damaging not only to fabric of American society, but also to its health care system, which contains a substantial number of Catholic hospitals.  And with this in mind, it seems somewhat odd that the Obama administration would take on this fight, given the many problems it already faces and the limited pain that such a waiver would inflict on abortion supporters.  One would think that one-and-half million abortions a year and the ready availability of the “morning after” pill to adolescents would sate their appetites somewhat.

Oddly and interestingly enough, the answer to this mystery can be found in the Supreme Court’s decision two days earlier to invalidate the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), thereby paving the way for same-sex marriage nationwide.

What, you ask, does birth control have to do with gay marriage?  Well, quite a lot, actually.  For starters, up until Wednesday’s ruling, the Obama folks had had a genuinely awful year before the Supreme Court, having lost far more times than they had won, and on far more significant matters.  As such, if the Court, which now has six Catholic Justices, had ruled in favor of DOMA, it is not just possible but likely that Obama and his megalomaniacal HHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, would have revised the rule, not wanting to risk another major loss when the mandate comes before the Court, as it inevitably will.

More to the point, we suppose, both issues – gay marriage and the compulsory provision of birth control in all insurance policies – speak to the same facets of American political and social life, and both exacerbate the existing trend away from the foundational American ideals.  Moreover, the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA opens the way for an even broader and more destructive attack on the institutions in this country that have, since the founding, enabled the unique American conception of liberty.  And the HHS mandate confirms that this attack will be impelled from the highest reaches of the ruling class.

In short, the developments of the last week continue the long-term trend pitting the powerful against the people, with the people inevitably sacrificing their freedom and their independence in the process.

As you may recall, earlier this year, we argued that some conservatives were missing the point on gay marriage and that the strong and enduring push for same sex unions was, in truth, the death knell of the sexual revolution, rather than that of the family.  Specifically, we put it this way:

We have written before in these pages that when it comes to gay marriage, we are generally ambivalent but also somewhat sympathetic.  We have also written that we think that the state should not really be in the business of blessing private or religious ceremonies in the first place.  A great many conservative commentators agree with us on both counts.  And if you look around, you’ll see a great many pontificating on these and other matters surrounding the gay marriage question as they wait with baited breath for the Supreme Court to issue its rulings on the matter.

That’s all well and good, we suppose.  But it’s also kind of beside the point.  The point here isn’t that the fight for the family is done or that traditional families are about to be destroyed.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  If the gay marriage debate tells us anything, we think, it is that the sexual revolution is over and that those who believe that “family” is important  have won.

We still believe this, of course, but the events of the last week have nevertheless suggested to us that this is not the only aspect of the gay marriage battle that is relevant to the future of the nation and its distinctive role as the ultimate protector and advocate of human liberty.  There is also the manner in which gay marriage has now been imposed upon the country.  That, in conjunction with the HHS mandate, suggests that the political Left is fully prepared now to promote a whole host of governmental mandates to promote and protect sexual license.

Regular readers undoubtedly know that we generally have great respect for Walter Russell Mead and believe him to be one of the most thoughtful and insightful academics working in the field of politics today.  That said, we bristled more than a bit when we read his analysis last week of the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision and that decision’s position in what he perceives to be a broader trend toward greater individual liberty and decentralization of power.  Mead put it this way:

It was Gay Marriage Day in Washington today with two Supreme Court decisions on the issue.  In United States v. Windsor, the Court struck down the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.  For the purposes of federal law and benefits, legally married same-sex couples will now receive the same recognition from the federal government that opposite-sex couples do . . .

But these two decisions are not the only culture war stories we’ve seen lately.  On the state level today, the big news is the setback for Texas Republicans hoping to use a special session to enact some of the most pro-life legislation in the country.  Republicans announced that the law, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, had passed, only to quickly recant.  The vote was invalid because it hadn’t followed proper legislative procedure. . . .

Both of these come hard on the heels of yesterday’s Voting Rights Act decision, which will now allow nine previously regulated states to make changes to voting procedures without federal pre-approval.  And all of this was preceded by the total rout of gun control legislation in the Congress in April . . .

It’s worth taking a step back from the emotions and technical details of all of these events to ask about the broader trend they point to.  Superficially, they point to a schizophrenic public: leaning pro-life; increasingly in favor of gay marriage; divided on gun control but unwilling to pull the trigger, so to speak, on significantly tightened gun laws.  But on a deeper level, these all look like examples of the biggest cultural-political trend in America: a response to the growing complexity of 21st century life that revives individualism and states’ rights . . .

The federal legislature, the Court, and state governments, both blue and red, seem to have adopted this principle of devolution as a strategy for dealing with the most politically toxic issues of our time.  America is too big and its citizens are too diverse for one-size-fits-all solutions to some of our culture war issues.  Some traditional American views seem newly relevant as we cope with these issues: individuals should be allowed as much freedom as is consistent with their not harming others; wherever possible, states should be free to settle their affairs on their own terms.

This is interesting, fascinating even.  It is hopeful, well-reasoned, and plausible, at least theoretically.  Beyond the hypothetical, though, it is also, as Bentham might say, nonsense on stilts.

We could go on for days and days, and pages and pages appealing to the authority of both the American Founding Fathers and countless of history’s other sages with respect to the necessity of personal morality and individual restraint on behavior in a nation such as ours.  For the sake of brevity, we will cite only four, the first being the Father of the Country, George Washington, who put it this way in his farewell address to the nation:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.  The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.  A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.  Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ?  And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.  Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.  The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government.  Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.  In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

The second bit comes from the second President of these here United States, John Adams, who, in a letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, wrote the following:

[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

The third (and last) of our Founding Fathers to weigh in is Benjamin Franklin, the revered man of science, who, in a “Letter to Messrs, the Abbes Chalut, and Arnaud, 17 April 1787” put it thusly:

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.  As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.

Finally, we have the father of modern conservatism and a supporter and admirer of the American experiment, the incomparable Edmund Burke:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites—in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity;—in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption;—in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves.  Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free.  Their passions forge their fetters.

What we can conclude from all of this is that the people who knew this republic best, who best understood the niceties of liberal governance, who willingly offered their lives for the promotion of liberty and the establishment of a nation dedicated to its preservation also knew that freedom doesn’t come free, as they say.  In order for men and women to persist in a state of liberty, they must also control themselves, pacify their baser passions in order to facilitate the function of society.  Just because man has the liberty to do as he pleases, doesn’t mean that he should do so at all times and in every case.  Indeed, if he does, the entire system collapses upon itself and the state is compelled to intervene, trading liberty for order.  This is so obvious, frankly, as to be a virtual truism.

The good news for the American Founders – and for all Americans who have come since – is that this nation was and, for most of its history, has been uniquely situated among Western nations to sustain a constitution that is suited exclusively to a moral people.  The secularization and eventual de-moralization of social life has always been far more advanced in Europe than in America, where civic institutions – i.e. clubs, guilds, families, and especially churches – managed to remain strong and largely beyond the control of the state.  These institutions, by nature “civilizing,” have provided the moral guidance that a people needs to enjoy liberty fully and happily.  It is no mere coincidence, in other words, that the American Constitution was ideally suited for the American people, but would likely never have worked anywhere else.  Tocqueville explained it thusly:

The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country.  Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.  They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.  The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.  If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.  Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association . . .

No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere . . . than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny; for a government can only dictate strict rules, the opinions which it favors are rigidly enforced, and it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands.  Worse still will be the case if the government really believes itself interested in preventing all circulation of ideas; it will then stand motionless and oppressed by the heaviness of voluntary torpor.  Governments, therefore, should not be the only active powers; associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away.

What all of this means, in our estimation, is that Walter Russell Mead is wildly and perhaps delusionally mistaken in his expectation that the Supreme Court’s ruling last week pushes the nation in the direction of greater individual liberty.  Indeed, as far as we can tell, it rather suggests just the opposite over the long term.

In order for Mead to be right, the Court’s rejection of DOMA would, by necessity, place greater responsibility on the citizens to behave decently and not to abuse their newly acknowledged liberty.  But that is not what is likely to happen at all.  In reality, it is far more probable that the government will take the opportunity provided by the Supreme Court to advance the interests of the state at the expense of the people and especially at the expense of those civic institutions on which American liberty has traditionally relied.

It is important to remember as the post-DOMA reality unfolds what exactly the Court said last week in its ruling.  For starters, the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, justified the ruling in terms of the 14th Amendment’s “Equal Protection” clause.  Kennedy wrote:

DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect.  By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.  The Constitution’s guarantee of equality “must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot” justify disparate treatment of that group.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Kennedy declared in no uncertain terms that anyone opposed to gay marriage and to the overturning of DOMA is, quite simply, a cretin.  To wit:

The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States . . .

DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.  The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency . . .

By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition . . .

While the Fifth Amendment itself withdraws from Government the power to degrade or demean in the way this law does, the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment makes that Fifth Amendment right all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved.

This is very powerful language, used in the service of a profoundly unimpressive argument.  Kennedy – who is the swing vote on the Court and thus arguably the most powerful man in the country – establishes as official Court precedent the notion that the only possible reason not to support or provide for same-sex marriage is rank bigotry, which is to say the desire “degrade or demean.”  In his estimation – and now the Court’s official estimation – denial of same sex unions is an unworthy and untenable position and one that violates the individual’s right to due process and equal protection.  The effects of Kennedy’s words will be felt far beyond the scope of mere government policy.

In his first post-DOMA commentary, the New York Times’ resident conservative Ross Douthat speculated a bit about gay marriage and what he calls the “end game” of the gay marriage advocates.  And in so doing, he explained in part why Kennedy’s words matter so much.

Unless something dramatic changes in the drift of public opinion, the future of religious liberty on these issues is going to depend in part on the magnanimity of gay marriage supporters — the extent to which they are content with political, legal and cultural victories that leave the traditional view of marriage as a minority perspective with some modest purchase in civil society, versus the extent to which they decide to use every possible lever to make traditionalism as radioactive in the America of 2025 as white supremacism or anti-Semitism are today.

Douthat goes on to say that he “can imagine a scenario in which a more drawn-out and federalist march to ‘marriage equality in 50 states’. . . ends up encouraging a more scorched-earth approach to this battle, with less tolerance for the shrinking population of holdouts, and a more punitive, ‘they’re getting what they deserve’ attitude toward traditionalist religious bodies in particular.”

We’ll be honest with you:  we have a hard time imagining any other scenario.

The fact of the matter is that the contemporary American state sees any and all sources of authority outside of itself as threats.  The civic institutions that permit liberty offer alternative foundations for behavior, which is to say that they serve as a substitute for and a buffer between the state and the people.  For at least the last century, the state has treated this alternative, these substitutes, as a threat that must be destroyed.  The inimitable Russell Kirk discussed this defect of the contemporary state more than a half century ago in his classic The Conservative Mind:

All history, and modern history especially, in some sense is the account of the decline of community and the ruin consequent upon that loss.  In the process, the triumph of the modern state has been the most powerful factor.  “The single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.”  There is every reason to regard the state in history as, to use a phrase that Gierke applied to Rousseau’s doctrine of the General Will, “a process of permanent revolution.”  Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its power, the nation-state has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of true community – aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association.  What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the state’s maintenance.  Universal military conscription and the “mobile labor force” and the concentration-camp are only the most recent developments of this system.  The “pulverizing and macadamizing tendency of modern history” that Maitland discerned has been brought to pass by “the momentous conflicts of jurisdiction between the political state and the social associations lying intermediate to it and the individual.”  The same process may be traced in the history of Greece and Rome; and what came of this, in the long run, was social ennui and political death.  All those gifts of variety, contrast, competition, communal pride, and sympathetic association that characterize man at his manliest are menaced by the ascendancy of the omnicompetent state of modern times, resolved for its own security to level the ramparts of traditional community.

Nearly 18 months ago, when the Obama administration first issued its guideline on the contraception mandate, we noted that the issue at hand was not really contraception . . . or health care, or even the Catholic Church.  The issue at hand was the state’s supremacy and its desire and ability to destroy all rivals to its authority.  The Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage is precisely the same.  The ruling is, first and foremost, about the state and about the state’s present power to establish itself as the final, indeed the only, arbiter of social probity.  Ben Domenech, the editor of The Transom and the editor of the current issue of the The City, which focuses on the gay marriage debate, put it this way last week:

The problem with gay marriage is not about gay people getting married — they’ve already been doing that, or living that way.  The problem with gay marriage is not that it will redefine marriage into a less valuable social institution in the eyes of the populace — that is already happening, has been for decades, and will continue regardless of whether gays are added to it or not.  And the problem with gay marriage is not about the slippery slope of what comes next — though yes, the legal battle over polyamory and polygamy is inevitably coming, as the principle of marriage equality demands it does (these relationships already exist below the radar, albeit with more poly than amory involved — of the 500 gay couples followed in the respected San Francisco study, about half of the partners have sex with someone else with their partner knowing).

No, the real problem with gay marriage is that the nature of the marriage union is inherently entwined in the future of the first line of the Bill of Rights: our right to religious liberty.  Orthodox believers of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths were slow to understand this.  I’m talking about something much bigger here than the discrimination lawsuits brought across the country against bakers and photographers: I’m talking about whether churches will be able to function as public entities in an era where their views on sin, particularly sexual sin, are in direct conflict with not just opinion but the law — and proselytizing those views from the pulpit or in the public square will be viewed as using the protection of religious expression to protect hateful speech . . .

The conflict between sexual liberty and religious liberty is unlikely to be one the religious will win, in large part because of the broad and increasing acceptance of an idea President Obama has espoused more than once in public: that the religious have a freedom to worship, and that’s where it ends.  When you leave the pew, you must leave your faith there.  Among the religious, this is absurd — their entire lives are defined by their faith, in ways large and small.  For both Christianity and Islam, the core of their faith is built on a call to take the message to the world, spreading it through public witness and preaching.  Yet this belief in the limited freedom to worship is what led Obama’s administration to argue that faith-based hiring and firing is a discriminatory act for religious entities.  It will lead to similar cases in the years to come regarding the marriage issue, but not just focused in that space — expect it to factor in divorce proceedings, custody battles, and more points involving the nice folks from Child Protective Services.  Expect it also to factor in dramatically expanding the scope of these discrimination lawsuits — think on the doctor in California who was brought up on discrimination charges for referring a lesbian couple to a colleague for artificial insemination . . .

Without religious liberty, there really is no such thing as free speech.  When government can pick and choose which form of expression is religiously defensible and which is unjustified hate, it fundamentally alters the relationship between state and citizen.

As we said at the beginning of this piece, we firmly believe that the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Obama administration rightly understood as specifying the state’s supremacy over all civic institutions, prompted HHS – the representative of the state, in this case – to capitalize on the sentiment and to solidify its position of primacy over all other organizations and civic entities.

The final rule on the birth control mandate is part and parcel of the same phenomenon as the DOMA ruling, namely the assertion of the state’s ascendency and the subjugation of all potential alternative sources of authority.  Religious liberty is heretofore no longer sacrosanct in the United States of America.  The state can and will tell religious organizations what they can do, what they can believe, and how they can operate.

Religious liberty, of course, is the fundamental liberty on which this nation was founded.  It served as the impetus for the first settlers to this country, the Pilgrims, and it is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the very foundation of the Bill of Rights.  Indeed, it is the reverence for freedom of religion that principally distinguishes the American Bill of Rights from its English predecessor (circa 1689).

Today, in the wake of the DOMA ruling and the HHS mandate, the nation’s historical devotion to this consummate natural right and human freedom is no longer guaranteed.  Religious liberty is under attack.  There are those who will claim that this freedom must be curtailed in pursuit of other, more practical human rights.  There are those who will claim that this attack is merely part of a move toward greater individual autonomy and individual responsibility.  And there are still others who will claim that religious liberty is a casualty in the war on the family and the sexual revolution.  All have missed the point.  Religious liberty is under attack because all civic institutions are under attack simply because they are perceived to be a threat to the state.  The contemporary state claims complete supremacy for itself.  And even foundational liberties must be sacrificed to preserve and foster that primacy.

Unfortunately, all of this leads inevitably to oppression.  It fosters the creation of that which J.K. Chesterton and especially Hilaire Belloc called “the servile state,” the condition in which the masses exist primarily to serve the needs and the desires of the few, in which the erstwhile sovereign people exist explicitly to serve the state, rather than the other way around.

We really wish that Walter Russell Mead were right and that the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling was merely part of a broader push toward individual liberty.  As we’ve said, we don’t object to gay marriage in principle and we understand the libertarian impulses that Mead claims are driving the process.

Unfortunately, we also understand that this is rubbish.  The manner by which gay marriage has been established, which is to say by judicial fiat, is telling.  Even more so is the language used by the Supreme Court in its establishment.  The Court’s majority opinion makes clear that there are some ideas that are simply unacceptable and that the state has a vested interest in disabusing the public of those ideas.

In the long run, this will lead not to greater liberty, as Mead imagines, but to greater complexity and invasiveness of the state.  The civic institutions whose historical role has been to keep the state at bay are explicitly targeted in the push for “marriage equality,” and they will thus be diminished by the state’s expressed interests.  And that, in turn, will lead to significantly less liberty as the state and the “law” will be forced to fill the void in moderating the people’s passions.

This is no mere coincidence.  It is the explicit goal of the members of the ruling class, an omnipotent state over which they have exclusive control.

Whether or not the ruling class will find success in this endeavor we cannot say.  But after last week, we feel much more confident in predicting that it will.

Welcome, in short, to the servile state.


Copyright 2013. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.