The imperial goodness of the liberal state


What is all this fuss over contraception? How could an edict from the Department of Health and Human Services requiring virtually all insurance plans to cover contraception and sterilization generate a major political crisis for the Obama administration?

The answer to that question is in a prior question. How is it that the federal government under our present Constitution could assume the position of telling private insurance companies what they should and should not be covering? The answer is The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, the most recent advance of the imperial liberal state.

Ordinarily, nobody would have noticed this interference by the federal government in a private business transaction between insurance companies and people in the insurance market. But this particular intrusion would have forced Catholic hospitals, universities, and charities to violate their institutionally held religious principles. People have not been rising up against birth control. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 99 percent of all non-virgin American women ages 15-44 have used at least one form of artificial contraception. Given the large number of Catholics in the country, that obviously includes an almost equally universal use among Catholic women.

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Rather, people are upset at important parts of their lives that they are capable of governing by themselves being run by the government. When a distant, impersonal bureaucracy gives directives to religious organizations without regard to their widely known religious principles, people see everyone's liberty disappearing into the government grinder. For this reason, support for repealing Obamacare has polled with rare exceptions between 51 and 61 percent since it became law two years ago.

In Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, I argue that the proper role of government is, as the Apostle Peter says, "to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good" (1 Peter 2:14). He could have said "punish evildoers and do good for the people they govern," but he chose to speak more restrictively. When government sees its responsibility as providing goods that people are or should be capable of providing for themselves-whether as individuals, families, religious communities, or private organizations-it becomes imperial in its ambition and reach, intolerant of competing service providers, and, in its own view, entitled to substitute its judgment in matters concerning those goods. The liberal state is a jealous god.

Three Democratic senators, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Barbara Boxer of California, and Patty Murray of Washington, writing in defense of the birth control mandate, illustrate the thinking of the imperial liberal state:

"Catholic hospitals and charities are woven into the fabric of our broader society. They serve the public, receive government funds, and get special tax benefits. We have a long history of asking these institutions to play by the same rules as all our other public institutions."

In other words, "We've paid you, we own you, you'll do it our way." The federal government treats the states the same way. So much for American federalism. So much for republican liberty.

In the eyes of the liberal state, any civil society organization that it does not control is either irrelevant or cannot be trusted to act in a morally responsible way. But these organizations, including religious bodies, are the life and limbs of liberty. That is why a birth control mandate became a political crisis for this reflexively statist administration.

Editor's note: An incorrect version of this column was posted earlier today.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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