Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has blocked the administration’s mandate that the Little Sisters of the Poor contract to provide contraception coverage to their employees. That the case has gone this far illustrates the sickness of the left, the complacence of our popular media culture, and the weakness (partly self-inflicted) of President Obama’s political opponents.The Little Sisters of the Poor provide nursing home care to the elderly poor. They are giving the old, indigent, and isolated not only a place to live, but the care rooted in a kind of personal love that neither the government nor business (as such) are well positioned to provide. No society can have enough of what the sisters are giving. In a sane world, the Obama administration would simply have given the sisters a thank you and left it at that. When it became clear that the president’s health care law would force the sisters to violate their consciences as a condition of continuing to alleviate the suffering of the vulnerable, the Obama administration could have apologized for the confusion and then either issued a waiver or called on Congress to adjust the law.
But, since the sisters’ beliefs are an example of unauthorized diversity, the Obama administration did not grant them a waiver. The Obama administration chose a “compromise” in which the sisters would still have to contract with a third-party to provide contraception coverage. This is not exactly a question of access to contraception. President Obama’s party enjoyed supermajorities in Congress for the first several years of his term. If the Obama administration prioritized subsidized contraceptives, they could have sought a direct government subsidy for those who did not have coverage for contraceptives through their employers. President Obama has instead chosen to make those who have religious objections to offering contraception personally responsible for contracting contraception services as a condition of helping the helpless. As Yuval Levin wrote, the demands of the Obama administration constitute a warning that those voluntary institutions that help the poor will be allowed to exist only by meeting whatever conditions are imposed by the political left.
The silence of the popular culture is damning. The very idea of “President Obama vs. The Little Sister of the Poor” would be considered (even by conservatives) too heavy-handed if it had been invented by a right-wing satirist. The skits write themselves. But the American popular entertainment culture that took an adversarial turn in the second half of the 1960s has chosen to ally itself with a segment of the political establishment. A popular media that took on LBJ now publishes worshipful profiles of technocratic liberals in power, while producing “radical” gestures that are the equivalent of an investment banker having an “eat the rich” tattoo on his back. For the mainstream media, Obama is the right kind of powerful, and the sisters are the wrong kind of weak.
This controversy also demonstrates several weaknesses in President Obama’s opponents. President Obama and his allies have been able to win the rhetoric of compassion even as they try to drive out or suborn those civil society organizations that the left finds disagreeable—even if the poor have to suffer as a result. The president’s right-of-center critics are not well positioned in the news and entertainment media that most persuadable voters consume. The cultures of the mainstream news and entertainment media lean left and, even when mainstream journalists try to be fair, the cultural bias shows up in the coverage. An occasional news viewer might only know the controversy as a confusing conflict freedom of religion and freedom of contraception. The viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the Obama administration was trying to prevent employers from banning use of contraception by their employees.
The well-funded (but slow and unimaginative) right-leaning Super PACs are predictably missing the opportunity to publicize the administration’s vulnerabilities on this issue, but the right’s problem goes beyond tactics and media relations. According to the 2012 presidential exit poll, 75 percent of respondents answered that President Obama’s policies would generally favor the middle-class or the poor. 53 percent answered that the policies of Obama’s opponent would generally favor the rich. Conservatives believe in the existence of a welfare state, but don’t focus enough on how the specifics of particular policies can deal with people’s legitimate concerns while leaving greater room for civil society.
People might have heard about the Little Sisters of the Poor, might admire the sisters, and even wish that more people (each in their own way) contributed more to such civil society organizations, without wanting to count only on those organizations if they should find themselves in need. Social welfare policy is not an afterthought to discussion of the economic growth that will come from greater economic freedom. Social welfare policy is a key component to how a free society operates. The failure to articulate a policy that dealt with people’s reasonable concerns about health insurance coverage left health care policy in the hands of the statists. It seemed to leave the Obama administration as the only game in town for the vulnerable. Absent a visible and comprehensible set of alternative policies, President Obama’s chaotic, expensive, and coercive statism will ultimately triumph.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous columns can be found here