I plan to write up a summary of where we stand on the recently released rules, or more accurately proposed partial rules, for the contraceptive mandate for the next issue of the magazine. In the meantime, I’ve found myself reflecting on the larger trends. Here is my general view.
We’re up against powerful cultural trends that threaten religious liberty. In the recent election Obama won a “values” campaign that felt it could ignore or even attack religious voters (“war on women”). This reflects fact that the fastest growing and most ideologically engaged demographic among white voters are the “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation. For the most part this group resents the historic prominence and influence of religion in the public square. The Democratic Party is their political vehicle. Thus we’re seeing sustained efforts to redefine and narrow the meaning of religious liberty. This runs from theorists in the law schools (e.g., Brian Leiter, Micah Schwartzman), to legal activists, to government bureaucrats.
In our favor is a parallel trend toward libertarianism and the general view that we ought to let people do pretty much what they want. This is the “don’t tread on me” sentiment that tends to be solicitous toward claims of conscience and against political correctness. This is a dangerous ally, however, since it’s the “different strokes for different folks” sentiment that also supports gay marriage and sexual liberation in general. This libertarian sensibility may support tolerance, but it won’t encourage support for religion. On the contrary, the moralism one finds in all forms of traditional religion will be seen as a threat to our culture of expansive personal freedom
It’s going to be difficult. I think we’re heading into dhimmitude of sorts. Our culture is becoming more and more dominated by post-religious attitudes that dictate the terms of the social contract. We’ve seen that very clearly in the university where religious voices have learned to obey rules set by the secular academy. The rules are sometimes cruel (Stephen Pinker), or sometimes sympathetic as long as certain liberal dogmas are respected (Martha Nussbaum), or even permissive (faith as part of the great pluralist postmodern conversation). The culture of the secular university is now becoming the norm for society as a whole, at least in part, which is why we’re feeling the pressure.
What’s to be done? The First Amendment provides a great deal of protection. We need good lawyering to make it work for us. But dhimmitude is a state of mind as much as a legal subordination, and this we must resist. We need a bit of Karl Barth in our diet. One hundred years ago he saw the Church’s voice being subordinated to the needs of the German state and its bourgeois culture. His response: speak and think in a confident, even aggressive Christian voice.