A Symposium on Threats to Our Religious Liberty

Nothing Will Come of Nothing

Robert Royal


That’s the amount of consultation the Obama Administration had with the American bishops prior to last Friday’s “accommodation,” according to some of the bishops (off the record) involved in the process.

It’s a strange way to try to meet people halfway.

So it’s no surprise that when the flim-flam was announced, it didn’t take the bishops long to realize that their ability to compromise with the president was precisely the same as his accommodation towards them.


President Obama seems to believe that Catholics in America are both stupid and spineless. There’s no other way to account for his accounting maneuver masquerading as tolerance of different points of view. To judge by some of the popular reaction in the polling, he may be right about the stupidity – even among some Catholics. But let’s hand it to the American bishops: the president has tipped his hand (or the cloven hoof) and they are neither fudging the truth nor walking away from the fight.

They’re right to do so in principle, of course. But they can also be sure that there’s practical, i.e., political, peril here for Mr. Obama. You could see it in the submerged anger and arrogance at the announcement: he was clearly a man not happy at being forced even to give the appearance of walking back a policy that many of the members of his own party and liberal groupies in the press have had to tell him is just plain wrong.

Several of them have also observed that he didn’t have to put himself in this position in the first place. But on that point, they are quite mistaken. And the president’s whole way of making his announcement made that clear.

The bishops have good legal grounds for their position. Religious liberty is a basic right guaranteed by the very First Amendment to the Constitution. It’s long been one of the principles that Americans take pride in: we are a country that, in George Washington’s words to the Touro Synagogue in Newport R.I., gives “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

By contrast, Mr. Obama opened his remarks by laying out the “fundamental right” to healthcare access for women, including contraception, abortifacient morning-after pills, and sterilization. Oh and, by the way, women have a right to all this without copays, which he will forbid the insurers to charge. Was there some even more fundamental right than religious liberty in the Constitution, somehow more “first” than the First Amendment that no one seems to have noticed until last Friday?

If you take Mr. Obama’s words at face value, there is. He and the many who back him in this matter have introduced a new constitutional trump card, one cobbled together out of decades of “emanations and penumbras” justifying contraception, abortion, and the most radical interpretations of women’s rights.

Except what was once thought of as a clever constitutional carom shot has now become a central principle of constitutional interpretation. In that perspective, anyone or any group, like the churches, who interferes with the new fundamental rights, is a sectarian on the fringes of the American experiment.

Forced to choose between the First Amendment and a new right concocted from  radical social attitudes about women, Mr. Obama chose to side with the ladies.

Many secular commentators have said, long before this particular controversy, that Mr. Obama feels he is hampered in running a modern nation by the quaint restrictions of an eighteenth-century document. One that, to take just one central trait, is intended to make it difficult for any single person to tyrannize over the people. That’s what it means to live under the rule of law and a government with limited powers.

And that’s the document our sometime professor of constitutional law swore to preserve, protect, and defend when he became president of the United States.

If you leave aside, for a moment, the whole moral controversy about the medical procedures, would anyone – even just a few decades ago – have thought that a president of the United States (or his Secretary of Health and Human Services – a department not envisioned in the Constitution, by the way), would think he can tell private insurers what they need to cover in plans and that they must provide certain services for “free.” And the most highly controversial ones, at that.

That’s the larger problem behind Obamacare, and some of us tried to get the American bishops to see that point during the congressional debates on healthcare “reform.” Even back then, it was clear that you might technically and temporarily get abortion out of the coverage and, quite quickly and permanently, see it and many other objectionable features come back once the feds take over.

It’s encouraging that our hierarchy now understands more deeply what is at stake in the healthcare struggle. If the controversy – which is not going away – leads to better reflection by all Americans not only about religious liberty but the size and scope of government, so much the better.

For it’s not only healthcare that is threatening to become a federal function. More and more, education and provision for the poor – two further areas not among the enumerated powers given to the feds – are also becoming the preserve of government.

When all schools, hospitals, universities, and welfare agencies are run by government – not as in the grand American tradition by civil society associations like churches and other sources of independence – it will be no surprise that many people will think, and behave, as they are told. It’s already started, among Catholics as much as anyone.

These are the kinds of fundamental threats to liberty out of which civil unrest and revolutions come. God save our dear America from all that.

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.

It’s the Kulturkampf, Stupid!

Michael Uhlmann


Nowhere is the character of the Obama administration more clearly revealed than in its determination to mandate insurance coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization. The original HHS regulation, issued in August 2011, would have required employers to subsidize insurance for these services. In the revised formula announced by the president last Friday, employer subsidies would no longer have to cover such services explicitly, but all health insurance companies would be compelled to provide “free” coverage for the same procedures.  

There is, however, no such thing as “free” insurance; its cost is always borne by policyholders. The same employers or employees who had to pay their share of premiums on Friday morning will still pay their share on Friday afternoon. The only difference, apparently, is that insurance bills will no longer specify that premium payments cover the cost of mandatory contraception, abortion, or sterilization services.

Such a transparently cosmetic gesture reeks of contempt, not only for the Catholic Church, and not only for the First Amendment, but as well for citizens of every faith who take their religious obligations seriously. It is a gesture designed to fool, well, only fools, and the administration is betting that there are enough of them in positions of authority and in pews who will buy into its barely concealed deceit.

While this wager is not without political risk, White House apparatchiks seem determined to take it. They know how to read public opinion polls, which confirm that large numbers of Catholics are, let us put this delicately, soft on the teaching authority of the Church, especially on matters relating to sexual activity. 

Obama’s operatives also know from experience that diverse sophists and bureaucrats at major Catholic universities and other institutions (as well as soi-disant Catholic elected officials), can be counted on to provide requisite intellectual and political cover for Obama’s policies. 

They know, too, that the mainstream media will reliably praise “enlightened” Catholicism of the sort represented by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Hospital Association, in contrast to the “reactionary” orthodoxy of the bishops – the same bishops, the public will be reminded, who tried to cover up sexual abuse by priests.  

It may well be that the White House underestimated the political fallout that might accrue from the original HHS mandate. But rather than address the legitimate concerns of critics, the administration instead offered only last Friday’s palpably counterfeit concessions. This tends to confirm the suspicion that the White House may be engaged in a much broader divide-and-conquer political strategy, one that comes straight out of Saul Alinsky’s playbook. 

Alinsky, it will be recalled, was the Chicago-based activist whose instruction played such a large part in President Obama’s intellectual and political formation. In his “Rules for Radicals,” he famously advised social protestors and community organizers to “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” As the presidential campaign gets underway, it’s a good guess that the Catholic bishops are about to appear in the cross hairs of the administration’s political snipers.      

Whether this Machiavellian strategy will succeed remains to be seen, but its boldness should not come as a surprise. From day one – and even before, if you take into account Obama’s aggressive defense of partial-birth abortion when he served in the Illinois legislature and U.S. Senate – the policies of this administration on reproductive services have coincided more or less perfectly with those of Planned Parenthood, just as its legal policies on church-state matters have generally coincided with those of the ACLU.  

Anyone who doubts that this administration is engaged in a war against the foundations of religious freedom hasn’t been paying attention. Even more striking than the substance of the administration’s policies is the increasing boldness with which they are asserted. There has been nothing quite like this in American history, save perhaps the shameful, short-lived “Know-Nothing” movement in the nineteenth century. 

After some initial hesitancy, the bishops now appear to recognize that they’re in the fight of their lives, one that will challenge not only the Church’s juridical standing in American law and the efficacy of the bishops’ teaching authority, but, more broadly, the legal right of individuals to practice their faith unmolested by hostile government agents.

In a strongly worded statement issued late on Friday afternoon, the USCCB identified the president’s new policy for what it was: a bogus, patronizing revision that revised nothing of substance. The bishops’ statement was couched in appropriately diplomatic language, but it also revealed a moral resolve not commonly observed in USCCB documents. Good for them. 

In the months ahead, however, they will need to do more, much more, including something most bishops have never had or tried very hard to do: they will need to rouse the faithful. God made pulpits for a reason, and the clergy should not be shy about using them between now and November. 

Litigation is certainly necessary and should be pursued, but at the moment it’s only one, and not necessarily the most important, component of a multi-front war. In the short term, the focus must be on good old-fashioned, hardball electoral politics. The laity must of course, carry the principal burden in this endeavor, but they need to be energized by those whose first duty is to teach and defend the faith.    

The Obama re-election campaign – bear in mind, the White House is already in full battle mode and plans to raise nearly a billion dollars to support its efforts – will attempt to cast the debate as one between narrow-minded, authoritarian religion on the one hand, and the freedom of women to use “reproductive services” on the other. Talking points along this line are already being parroted by liberal politicians and journalists, and they will increase in frequency and intensity in the coming months.

Campaign surrogates will also avoid explicit discussion of abortion, and will use every possible means to divert attention from the real issue – the use of governmental power to coerce the behavior of religious believers. If the administration succeeds in defining the debate in these terms, the defenders of religious freedom will almost certainly lose. Saul Alinsky’s ghost must be licking his chops.

But nothing in politics is inevitable. Not only Catholics, but all citizens of religious faith, need to be reminded about the gravity of this fall’s elections. The Obama administration is determined to remake American culture in accordance to the dictates of a radically secularized understanding of human nature and the ends of political life. 

As the estimable Charles Krauthammer noted last week, the gospel according to Obama represents a radical turn in American politics, one that sees traditional religion, and much of American political culture besides, as a reactionary force standing athwart true social progress. The administration’s HHS rule is but one expression of that settled disposition. One hesitates to think about what a second Obama term might look like. 


Michael Uhlmann served in the Reagan White House and now teaches American politics at the Claremont Graduate University.


The Depths of Depravity

Brad Miner


Others have described the many ways the administration of President Barack Obama has, from the beginning, been hostile to the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, there’s an almost sulfuric odor in Washington these days, so aggressive has been the president’s attack, aided and abetted by nominal Catholics in his inner circle, most especially by his strident Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, and his suddenly silent Vice President, Joe Biden.

As other contributors to The Catholic Thing have pointed out, there’s a long list of specifically anti-Catholic and, more generally, anti-Christian actions taken by the Obama regime, beginning with the president’s decision to lift the ban on embryonic stem-cell research and culminating – so far – in the current HHS mess. Throughout, the reasoning presented in justification of the policies imposed has been sophomoric, if not tortured. And the best example is the president’s “walk back” of the abortifacient-contraception-sterilization mandate.

He did nothing to address the moral issues involved, but one wouldn’t expect that, since abortion is the law of land and only truly committed Christians dissent from the twisted orthodoxy of Roe v. Wade (fewer still object to Court-approved contraception), and only a blind partisan could possibly call Mr. Obama a committed Christian (and actually believe it). What he did do is explain that the latest emendation of the contraceptive-coverage requirement preserves “basic fairness for all Americans” by shifting the focus away from religious organizations to the insurance companies that provide health coverage, which now not only MUST cover contraception but also do so for FREE.

That this idiocy is without doubt the camel’s nose under the tent, no one should doubt. Soon enough this administration (or a successor) will decide that direct abortion must also be covered. It’s significant that – as far as I’m able to tell – it is just these “health” services related to women and sex (contraception, abortifacient drugs, and sterilization) that are to be “free.” [If there are other free items, I hope readers will let us know.] This is clearly a sop to what our colleague Austin Ruse calls the “pelvic Left.”

Well, the old saying applies: to the victor belong the spoils. But how is it possible – except in the mind of a child or an idiot – to conceive of manufactured things in the real world as “free.” Thieves conceive of certain goods and services as free, which is why they steal them without pang of conscience, but whether it’s an IUD or Ella or a tubal ligation, there are costs associated. When the expenses of any business go up, its managers must look for ways to increase revenues. In this case, mandates from the Feds will necessitate higher premiums for everybody’s basic health-insurance coverage.

Obviously, Mr. Obama cagily embraces the ludicrous “free” lie, because it appeals to his most ardent supporters. He’s just the most prominent case of an African-American politician who willfully ignores the near holocaust in America’s black inner-city neighborhoods. In New York City, for instance, 60 percent of all black pregnancies end in abortion. How many babies – who could be the next Martin Luther King, Jr., Sidney Poitier, or Barack Obama – are never conceived because of contraception, we’ll never know. And of the black babies who are born, 70-75 percent (at a minimum) are “illegitimate.” The president is wholly indifferent to this. He wants feminist support and he’ll embrace any expedient to that end. If he had his way, contraceptives would be dispensed like M&M candies, regardless of the demographic effect on the communities involved or the negative impact on the health of individuals.

But, hey! It’s free. As the geniuses at Bloomberg News put it:

Under the revised rule, the insurance companies would offer the contraception directly to the women who work for religious-based hospitals and universities, so that their employers don’t have to be involved. The religious employers also would not subsidize the cost of the coverage.

We speak of the President of the United States as the most powerful man in the world, but I don’t believe he has the power to make merchandise magically appear out of thin error [pun intended]. Somebody must subsidize the cost of this immorality, and if it’s not “religious” employers, it’ll have to be other employers, and if not them then us: taxpayers.

And a few more miles – or years – along this road and with this kind of deception, the healthcare system will be so broken by the Feds that they will surely own it. To say that health – in any sense – is neither within the expertise of government nor within the scope of its constitutional power ought to be uncontroversial, but that’s becoming mere nostalgia.

After the president’s announcement (with an ashen faced Sebelius at his side) that the HHS rules would be modified – a political move if ever there was one – Mr. Obama glibly acknowledged that there remains much to be worked out. The USCCB committee overseeing the issue (Dolan, DiNardo, Wuerl, Lori, and Blaire) remains skeptical:

The indication from the Administration that this process will be worked out into the coming year is of grave concern. Prolonging the process of the protection of religious liberty over multiple months is not beneficial or effective for the clear principle of religious liberty and freedom from coercion. In particular, the clear assertion of religious liberty is a matter of justice for our employees.

The “compromise” is, they conclude, “unacceptable.” That’s as far as the bishops may be able to go in public statements. For my part, I’ll vote for the GOP candidate in November, and I ask any Catholic who is leaning towards Obama: Why?