Fr. Philip De Vous: HHS Mandate is Statism
Political campaigns in any era are never totally bereft of talk of morality and moral principles in general, nor do they shy away from discussing very specific moral issues that might be in the air or of national salience. The current presidential campaign, however, has been by any reckoning almost surreal in its discussion of very intimate and personal moral issues. This reality is perfectly illustrated in the current debate over contraception and the contraceptive mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services that forces all insurers to cover contraception and other “un-family” planning.
This is interesting. Many of my fellow conservatives think that the reason the contraception and contraceptive mandate issue have made such a dramatic appearance in this political season is due to a new outbreak of the ongoing culture wars that have been afflicting American unity since the 1960s. There is some truth in that analysis, but it is incomplete. The appearance of these controversial, even intimate moral issues has more to do with the unchecked growth of state power incarnate in the welfare state.
The ideology that is fueling this debate is known as statism. This idea and form of governing insists that there is no real limit to the coercive and confiscatory power of the state as it applies to the lives of citizens. This ideology views the people of a nation, not as citizens who hold the sovereignty, but as subjects to be “cared” for, directed and regulated.
It is because the reach of state has intruded so deeply into the most intimate details of people’s lives — from the kind of light bulbs we use or whether someone needs contraception — that such issues of intimate morality have been taken out of their traditional province of the individual conscience and the privacy of the sphere of civil society.
The vehicle for this latest breach of the boundary between the private and the public realm of morality has been the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare. No matter how one construes the thousands of provisions, rules, regulations, and mandates of this piece of legislation, it has as its bottom line this unavoidable fact: the control and total regulation of a citizen’s healthcare.
Obamacare is part of a never-ending series of government programs created to “help.” In actuality, these programs, whether one agrees with them or not, are programs that intrude deeply into people’s personal lives and habits, along with their health, business, and finances. Such programs, created by legislation, as well as by executive and bureaucratic fiat, guide, direct, and regulate larger and larger aspects of individual, familial, and personal life.
Because of this deep penetration of the political into the realm of personal and communal privacy, more and more divisive, “hot-button” moral issues have been wrongly thrust into the public square. The fact that so many moral issues, especially those connected to very intimate matters and choices have become matters of national political discussion is sure sign that we are experiencing the effects of a personally oppressive, as well as a politically regressive, statism.
Many if not most of these issues of personal and of communal morality are not matters that should be topics exposed to the exploitation and vagaries of politics. In a nation with a healthy civil society, unmolested by statist aggression, these issues would be worked out by individuals within the confines of their personal lives, as well as within the respective communities of meaning to which they belong and participate — family, friends, communities of faith, and so on.
The issues that presidential candidates should be talking about are the issues that form the broad national agenda, which is within their purview to guide: Establishing pro-growth economic policies, focusing on the foreign policy challenges, such as Syria, the broader Middle-East, North Korea and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a thuggish Russia under Putin, among many others.
How about focusing on our need for a sensible national energy policy that sets us on a road to energy independence and job creation? Why can’t candidates focus more intently on national defense? After all, we are in a war, with aggressors around the world aiming to harm the United States and its citizens. How about talking intelligently about the entitlement problem, with its trillions in unfunded liabilities, especially when the failure to address them results in the fiscal collapse of the nation?
Frankly, it is bizarre to see presidential candidates campaigning to serve the broad national agenda talking at some length on occasion about the issues of contraception, pornography, sin, Satan and sex. Those issues, which are matters of great importance to the goodness and wholeness of a person, belong to the zone of the soul, in the purview of conscience, and worked out in the realm of civil society.
On the whole, these are matters that are to be handled through the work of parents, priests, preachers, friends, and family, not by presidential candidates. Certainly a president needs to be a man of character, the fact that government has grown so large and invaded every aspect of life is why presidential candidates are talking, or are feeling forced to talk, about these personal things rather than things that pertain to the broad issues that constitute the national agenda.
Conservative candidates for president need to be focusing on the size and scope of a government that has breached its constitutional boundaries and its fiscal possibilities. This due to a lack of constitutionally conservative government and profligate spending designed to subsidize and buy off larger portions of the populace. Those issues are within the purview of the political.
One quick way to begin the defusing of the culture wars is to put government back in its constitutional boundaries and focus on restoring civil society to its proper, and indeed, the larger place it must occupy if America is to remain the free, virtuous, and authentically pluralistic place it has been in the past.
My faith teaches me to convince others of the validity and goodness of certain truths, person to person, forming a culture that leads to a moral consensus. That is where the true morality of a nation is formed, not in the electoral or political sphere.
Until Leviathan is slain, we will continue to see presidents and presidential candidates acting as preachers in proclaiming their morality and wondering at the sight of preachers talking politics in the pulpit. Perhaps due to the unwholesome reality created by American’s present cultural, moral, and political disorder, such a chaotic mixing of roles and issues is necessary, but I can’t shake the feeling it is a bad idea for the civil society, personal conscience, and the public square.
Father Phillip W. De Vous is the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Crescent Springs, Ky.