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President Obama: Ex-Liberal Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 14 October 2011

President Barack Obama has abandoned liberalism. What I mean by liberalism is not the political philosophy that we typically associate with left-of-center politicians and candidates. The president, of course, remains unabashedly in that camp. What I am referring to is a particular posture concerning moral questions, which the president has publicly embraced on several occasions. It is from that liberalism he has walked away.

In a speech delivered at the 2006 Call to Renewal conference, Senator Obama offered these thoughts on the relationship between politics and religion:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

In his 2009 Notre Dame commencement address, the President eloquently opined on the importance of mutual respect in the face of deep irreconcilable differences on the matter of the moral status of nascent human life:

Understand – I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it – indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory – the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

What one finds in these speeches are prescriptions for public discourse derived from a widely held understanding of liberalism that is often and correctly attributed to the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls. What the president is saying is that if you want to restrict another’s fundamental liberty based on reasons that those coerced would be reasonable in rejecting, your coercion is unjustified, even if it is not unreasonable for you to embrace those reasons for yourself.


        Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: illiberal liberals

So a prolifer may have good reasons to be prolife, but they are not so good that a prochoicer is required to accept them as well. Of course, I think the President’s reasoning is flawed, and I have offered critiques of similar positions here, here, here, and here. But let’s set these criticisms aside and assume for the sake of argument that the president is correct, that a just regime is one that embraces this sort of liberal understanding of how a pluralistic society ought to handle disagreements between contested accounts of the human person.

In that case, the President has abandoned liberalism.

His Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently issued a new regulation that would require all private health plans to provide contraception, sterilization, and some abortifacient pharmaceuticals without fee or co-payment. Although there is a “religious exemption,” the criteria for what counts as a religious organization are extremely narrow:

(1) The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the organization.
(2) The organization primarily employs persons who share the religious tenets of the organization.
(3) The organization serves primarily persons who share the religious tenets
of the organization.
So, according to the U. S. government, a Catholic hospital, university, or charitable organization that believes its purpose is to actualize the moral commandments of Christ, to love its pre- and post-natal Catholic and non-Catholic neighbors as it loves itself, and to do so by welcoming with open arms all in need of its services, has ceased to be Catholic. The absurdity of this is palpable.

It is one thing for the Church to excommunicate some of its members, as it did with Martin Luther. That is it’s right. It is quite another for the U.S. government to use its law-making power to procure corporate schism so that it may coerce the Church to use its assets to engage in acts it believes are gravely immoral. We would think it unseemly for the government to require an Orthodox Jewish deli to stay open on Saturdays in order to serve ham sandwiches to Gentiles – on the grounds that eating is a secular activity and most of its customers are non-Jews. How much more should we think it unseemly for the government to coerce the Catholic Church, in its many diverse and important ministries, to materially cooperate with activities it believes are gravely immoral?

In his Notre Dame address the president conceded that reasonable people can disagree on the moral status of nascent life.  And in his Call to Renewal speech, he maintained that democracy requires that citizens should not trample on the fundamental liberties of others unless they can explain their coercion based on a “principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

Clearly, the Catholic, a person of faith, does not believe he could ever have access to a principle by which the state may have warrant to coerce Catholic organizations to violate Catholic moral teachings. Just as there are no married bachelors, there are no unprincipled principles. Thus, it looks like the president’s new HHS regulation, to use his own words, is not “amenable to reason.”

It is deeply unnerving to realize that the current Occupant of the Oval Office, who fancies himself as a second Lincoln, sees nothing wrong in using the power of the state to convert the assets of religious organizations into government subsidies in order to underwrite practices that the legitimate owners of these assets consider gravely immoral. The liberal Obama would have bristled at the thought.

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University. His most recent book is Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.
 
 
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Comments (7)Add Comment
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written by Michael Bauman, October 14, 2011
Frank,

First, good article: As always, it's well reasoned and well articulated.

Second, and less important, you are far kinder to Obama than I am. I don't think the man has abandoned his principles because I'm not sure he has, or had, principles of this sort to abandon -- unless saying and doing what's to one's own situational advantage be considered a principle.

In other words, his speech at Notre Dame seems to me cravenly opportunistic, not principled: "What comments go over best in a discussion with Catholics?" rather than "What do I believe in my heart of hearts on the point?"

I say so because his debates with Alan Keyes on the issue when running for the Senate from Illinois reveal yet a different set of "principles" than the ones articulated at Notre Dame, which are different yet from how he voted on the issue when he was in the Illinois Senate, which are different yet from how he governs at the moment.

Unlike Keyes, who gives you the same view on this point in every situation, Obama has no core, and what we see is not a change of principles but the inevitable vacillation that comes from having no firm principles while finding oneself in ever-changing circumstances.
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written by Jan Dennis, October 14, 2011
Dr. Beckwith,
Thank you for the interesting post. A couple of observations. I question calling Rawlsianism "classical liberalism" because its natural rights approach to moral enquiry seems tainted by positivism. In relation to Mr. Obama, this can be seen in his dealings with the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, notably set forth in in the June/July 2010 issue of First Things in an article by Richard Cohen and Yuval Levin, both former staffers on the Commission. These authors note the shift of the Commission's activities under Mr. Obama away from its original purpose “to undertake fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology” to focusing on "utilitarian concerns and matters of procedure." Thus, Mr. Obama seems more of a Positivist than a Classical Liberal.

Second, there is a real question as to whether Mr. Obama disingenuously manipulates language to give the appearance of being more moderate than he actually is when speaking at venues where his true views would be less than welcome.

Finally, Mr. Obama's recent behavior strikes me as not so much a man abandoning formerly held Liberal positions as a man who has always been a radical Progressive finally displaying his true colors.
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written by Andrew McMillan, October 14, 2011
As a UK Citizen I don't know enough about US politics to comment on some of the issues raised here. My understanding is that the separation of church and state in the US means the government could not intervene in the practices of a faith organisation (e.g. a Catholic Hospital), but I'm assuming the Catholic Hospital does not receive any funds from the government?

In the UK there are public catholic schools that, governed by the dioceses, but paid for mainly by the government. The Church has control over the schools, but the government retains the right to expect that certain items are taught. For example, I teach sex education in a Catholic school. I am obliged by the government to ensure students are aware of various forms of contraception (both natural and artificial), as they pay my wages, but my contract of employment is with the Church, so I am also obliged to (and happy to) teach that the Catholic Church believes sex is sacred and should be reserved for marriage. It is a difficult tension to manage.

If the government are helping to fund the Catholic Hospitals, whether in part, or in full, then obviously the issue is cloudier, than if the agency is entirely independent.

Could you clear up the issue of funding of these catholic agencies?
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written by Patrick, October 14, 2011
Andrew, I don't think it matters whether the organization receives public funding or not. I didn't read the whole thing and I'm not a lawyer, but I couldn't find any references to the receipt of public funding. Yes, it would apply to organizations that do receive public funding, but it appears likely that it would also apply to those which do not.

There is even this: "Most commenters [it does not say who], including some religious organizations, recommended that HRSA [an Obama-funded bureaucracy] Guidelines include contraceptive services for all women and that this requirement be binding on all group health plans and health insurance issuers with no religious exemption."

As the article noted, some rather limited exemptions were allowed. But it appears that this was done only as a small compromise by Obama. Given the above, it also seems clear that the law applies to everyone, including for-profit business and private organizations who don't receive public funding, who wants to provide health insurance.

Moreover, this is part of a larger pattern.

Furthermore, I don't think it's wise to accept government requirements simply because they are providing public funding. Such money is, after all, public, and in a democracy it is perfectly legitimate to argue that it should not be used to fund immorality.
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written by Louise, October 14, 2011
Has anyone gone back and taken a look at the names of Obama's committee during the campaign that were to advise him on "Catholic issues"? I believe that every one of those "advisors on Catholic issues" were all publicly dissenting Catholics (beginning with Mr. Kmiec), hell-bent on destroying the Church. Did you think that they were advising him on how to support Catholic moral principles? Highly unlikely. More likely, they were advising him on how best to support their agenda and passing on the names of other publicly dissenting Catholics who could serve in his administration and who would support him in his attempts to do just what he is doing now. Why is anyone surprised? Are we ever going to wake up and smell the coffee? Why wasn't the make-up of that committee and its implications condemned from all the pulpits and chanceries in the country? It's not rocket science to see that this man wants to destroy the Church--or that part of it that refused to enlist in his program of destruction. We really must be taxing the patience of the Holy Spirit.
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written by Martial Artist, October 14, 2011
@Michael Bauman,

You wrote: "unless saying and doing what's to one's own situational advantage be considered a principle." Having now listened to the current President for over 3 years, it is quite clear that what you suggest might be considered a principle, namely, almost always "saying and doing what's to one's own situational advantage," is almost certainly one of the man's foundational principles, and perhaps his only firmly held principle. He always attempts, and frequently succeeds, in telling any particular audience what he believes it most wants to hear, and has done since he first appeared on the national scene. But that is what demagogues do, isn't it?

Pax et bonum,
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written by GABRIEL, October 14, 2011
The president is wrong. If God has decleared something, there are not two ways about it and nothing further needs to be said.

What people might "believe" or not "believe" is utterly irrelevant.

People can "believe" what ever they want, as long as they do exactly what God has told them to do.

Gods rules does not "need" to be rephrased to the pagans.

Just tell them "Because God said so". And if they don`t like it, they can complain to Him.

God is not a Democrat. Nor is He a Republican.
God is a Theocrat.

Simple as that.

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