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Conscientious absolutism


Need help thinking your way through the religious liberty and health care policy thicket? Yesterday, the Brookings Institution released a useful guide, "Health care Providers' Consciences and Patients' Needs: The Quest for Balance," by two of its thoughtful policy wonks, William A. Galston and Melissa Rogers. The report ends with a set of "suggestions for policymakers," the last of which is particularly worth pondering:

[A]lways look for ways of including competing principles and divergent interests. Policymaking takes place on the level of symbolism and emotion as well as of calculation and impact.  Totally denying the claims of one party and legislating based entirely on the core arguments of the other sends a powerful message: your moral perceptions don’t count, and your core interests don’t matter. That is rarely the formula for productive and sustainable policymaking in a diverse democracy.

Whatever the faults of the Obama administration in handling the conctraception coverage mandate, it cannot be accused of totally denying the moral claims of the other side. But the same cannot be said for the other side. I have seen nothing from congressional opponents by way of an acknowledgement of the moral claim that women are entitled to contraception services as part of their health insurance.

And this asymmetry extends to the advocates. In the pro-contraception community, the Obama accommodation has been largely embraced as a way of reconciling the competing principles. But the paladins of religious liberty have largely rejected it. In some cases, they've rejected it because they reject the very idea of acknowledging diverse moral perceptions. Here, for example, is Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete (h/t Michael Sean Winters):

Obama is, I think, the new man being created by modern American secularism, a kind of nihilism which doesn't throw away Bibles, but welcomes many interpretations of it and of other "sacred books" in order to enrich the cultural panorama with a diversity that serves as a bulwark against absolutist claims.

Actually, this is a view of many of the Catholics in Obama's intellectual circles who know no other way but to split faith from public life, abandoning the former to the realm of subjective opinion or moralistic fundamentalism, and the latter to the dictatorship of relativism.

What the monsignor sees as a nihilistic dictatorship of relativism the Brookings fellows consider a formula for productive and sustainable policymaking in a diverse democracy. That's the real nature of the culture war we're in.

Topics: Politics, Government & Politics
Tags: contraception mandate, culture war


  1. The problem is not recognizing the need to balance interests.  Both sides see the need for that.  The problem is that for opponents of the mandate, religion should be given greater weight than contraception.  Such preference is rooted in our Constitution and history.  The right to religious freedom is not absolute, but contraception does not rise to the level of a compelling government interest necessary to protect other fundamental interests, like life.

  2. I’d like to see examples of opponents who acknowledge the moral perspective of those who wish to guarantee women access to contraception free of charge. Thus far, I’m not aware of such from either Catholic bishops or other religious leaders opposed to the mandate. Whether contraception does not rise to the level of a compelling government interest is a debatable point, but a different one.

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