Obama’s Obliviousness Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 06 February 2012

One of the first texts Great Books students are often asked to read is Plato’s Meno, a clever dialogue in which Socrates shows a friend how even an uneducated slave boy can be led, by the right kind of questions, to unchanging geometrical propositions, almost as if he were remembering timeless truths learned in a previous life. Unlike us, some ancients believed that discovering unchanging truths amidst the ceaseless flux of life was not a sign of the merely mechanical and material, but of something deathless and divine.

Truths like those can be read, at least in part, in two ways. It’s sort of like an algebraic equation: x2 = 4, where x can equal either +2 or -2, seemingly opposed answers. But in fact, both are real truths, without either getting in the way of the other, properly understood. In our time, we typically regard such propositions as only part of the natural, neutral world. But there’s a lot to be said – and lots of pagan philosophers, Jews, and Christians said and are still saying it – for also taking seriously what it means that there are eternal realities perceptible in that world and that we have minds capable of knowing and marveling at them. 

Which, as I’m sure you can already see, leads us directly to current political controversies.

A lot has been said and written recently about the Obama Administration’s encroachment on religious liberty by forcing religious institutions to violate their beliefs in healthcare coverage. At the most immediate, superficial level, the administration’s claim that this is the right “balance” between respecting conscience and making “preventive” care available is absurd – and stands a good chance of being overturned in court.

But a deeper question – one long smoldering in American public life – lies behind the immediate controversy. Some Americans think that providing education, healthcare, and poverty relief is a merely secular function. (Let’s leave for another day the crucial point whether our Constitution authorizes federal involvement in these questions.) For many of us, however, teaching the uninstructed, healing the sick, and comforting the poor is also a religious obligation – as even the president seemed, for obvious political purposes, to concede the other day at the National Prayer Breakfast – one carried out better by intermediate institutions like religious bodies and not discharged by delegating the responsibility to the state.

There are two main reasons why this is so. First, governments are not good at dealing with such issues. We’ve had over a century of experience with how these functions, once almost exclusive realms of religious institutions, are carried out by large bureaucracies. It would not have surprised Plato that governments – which are after all run by elected politicians not philosopher-kings – create fury at failing inner-city education, fights over health “systems,” and the poor showing of the “war” on poverty. The results flow almost automatically from the instrument used.

And that because of a second problem. We often hear that public policies must be neutral between religions, as well as between religion and non-religion. But our current practice fails a simple test. To take just one possible example:  Say same-sex “marriage” comes up in a high-school civics class. What if the teacher came out and said, as some have, that he or she is a Christian who thinks homosexual activity wrong and gay “marriage” unequal to traditional marriage? Even if that teacher respectfully engaged other views in the classroom discussion, how long would it be before the local board of education got slapped with a lawsuit? The same teacher could easily take a pro-gay-marriage stance and suffer no consequences, indeed have his right to speak stoutly defended.

Such questions have become harder to resolve, given where we now are as a culture. Many of the things we once thought could be defined as neutral public activities are, on closer inspection, not so neutral at all. Chesterton once remarked that there was a Catholic way to teach the times table, which seems a stretch until you remember that Plato and many other people, like the great modern French philosopher Simone Weil, have claimed that geometry has good practical uses, but is even more useful for teaching contemplation.

“Neutrality” claims on many issues are something of a smokescreen. Traditional values have been increasingly restrained in public and alternatives protected by law, sort of like suppressing one meaning of the geometrical figure or one solution to the quadratic equation. Such neutrality is not neutral or liberal a friend of truth.

The best way to remove partisanship masquerading as neutrality would be to remove education, healthcare, and other key culture-defining activities from government involvement entirely. Or at least to enable various institutions to carry them out in different ways, even though different groups may account for that service differently. This takes a certain social tact that we used to be able to manage in America.

The principle here is to respect different ways of contributing to the common good without requiring a single definition of that good. That would put government in the position of imposing an ideology. But such loose ends bother authoritarians of all stripes.

At Vatican II, few Fathers believed that a coherent theory lay behind the document on religious liberty, though many thought affirming religious liberty in the face of modern governments was essential nevertheless. The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray described even our own American arrangements as “not articles of faith but articles of peace.” They could be made to work tolerably well – if all parties were well intentioned.

But they rarely are. The Obama Administration has shown itself particularly oblivious to both the superficial mechanisms and deeper meanings on which it is now treading. Under the guise of greater freedom and fairness, it is leading us into a world narrower and nastier. It’s too late for them to go back and contemplate, even with a pagan like Plato. God help us all. 

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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