If last fall someone had mentioned that, in a few months, American Presidential politics would be focused on the issue of contraception, I doubt very much whether that person would be asked to offer odds on much else. And yet, here we are in February, and the main topic of concern seems to be – birth control.
The issue is, of course, a contrived one, a fairly deliberate misdirection of the conversation by the Democrats, who were terribly uncomfortable with where the real conversation was heading, and the media, who craved the entertainment value.
And what was the real conversation? Well it was never about the merits or deficiencies of birth control exclusively. It arose from very well-founded concerns over a previously little-known section of the Affordable Care Act, in which the Department of Health and Human Services mandated that all health insurance plans include coverage for contraception and abortifacients. At issue was the fact that a business owned and operated by (to use the predominant example) Catholics, would be forced to purchase and offer health insurance plans which provided services to which they had serious moral and religious objections.
There are larger issues at stake here than ones opinion on contraception. The HHS mandate represents a direct affront to the perhaps most distinctly American virtue, freedom of religious expression, by dictating that the state can force one to violate his or her own most closely held moral convictions. There are instances where societal laws necessarily trump personal religious codes – prohibitions against female genital mutilation, administration of sharia-inspired punishments, and polygamy, for example; but the protection of individuals and the maintenance of established social order is a far cry from the state intervening to mandate moral transgressions. No one – at least not on the right -- is talking about outlawing birth control, but about opposing its imposition.
The argument takes a couple twists. The first really goes beyond the particular issue of mandating contraceptives and abortifacients, and speaks to the general issue of government mandating much of anything. The core contention with Obamacare is the proposition that the government feels entitled to direct the decisions of individual businesses, the market, and individuals. In strictly economic terms, it is precisely the imposition by government in what should be market based decisions, of mandates on individual businesses and industries telling them what they need to provide, that has most directly contributed to the unnaturally high costs of health care. In broader terms, it is this sense of plenipotentiary authority on the part of the government that is at the heart of the Constitutional question that will ultimately place the fate of Obamacare into the hands of the Supreme Court.
Secondly, the HHS debacle, coupled with the ascendency of Rick Santorum in the GOP primary, has given rise to the whole question of the role of social issues in politics. Many of the so-called “social issues” -- that the left keeps earnestly striving to proclaim dead, only to resurrect as a weapon when a conservative dares mention them – are inextricably linked to the wider conservative message of limited government. Aside from the crushing national debt that it has helped spawn, one of the most tragic products of the toxic marriage of moral liberalism and state compassion over the last half-century has been the creation of the closest thing to a static underclass that America has known since abolishing slavery – the very type of underclass that the policies that encouraged it were designed to eradicate.
The statistics bear out the reality – the poorest neighborhoods in the nation are the ones where the federal government has taken on the role of the family – parent, provider, educator, nurse. It is a role at which it is singularly unfit, and which in its execution serves only to perpetuate the misery it seeks to ease.
It is incumbent on conservatives to not pretend that these problems do not exist, or to deny their provenance. The insistence on a respect for the proper roles of the family, religion, and the state are not, as some would try to paint it, a call for a theocracy, but an appeal to keep government from exacerbating social problems, by preventing it from absorbing what ought to be the responsibilities of those segments of society best suited to both preemptively and reactively deal with them.
And this does not include a debate over the relative merits or evils of birth control. But it does involve a debate over what has been the result of several generations of enforced secularization and concurrent government expansion.