President Obama: Ex-Liberal

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

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).