The most evil thing about the Obama administration’s recent violation of the separation of church and state is its deceptiveness. With his order requiring inclusion of contraception and abortifacient drugs in insurance coverage, the president is smuggling the hidden premises of NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and other supporters of abortion into U.S. law, and doing so untruthfully. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) instruction attacking religious institutions such as hospitals, universities, and programs for the poor rests on four hidden premises.
(1) The first deception is that the president has issued a “contraception mandate.” It is not that; it is a presidential power grab. No state or other jurisdiction is trying to ban contraception. Neither the Catholic Church nor any other religious body is trying to ban contraception. The means of contraception are even more widely available than in drugstores; one can pick up condoms in restrooms, even in restaurants. The reason for this deception is to make opponents appear to be doing something they are not. They are not banning contraception. It is dishonest to focus on contraception instead of on the real issue, the attempt to extend presidential power into areas constitutionally forbidden to it.
The genius of this deception is its explicit attack on the Catholic Church. This tactic was aided by the Church’s long and well-known moral disapproval of contraception, as an artificial barrier between a man’s and a woman’s complete self-giving. Yet the Church does not try to ban contraception even among its own congregants, only to teach that it is morally wrong, because it reveals a self-absorbed form of love.
In this way, by distorting Church doctrine, the president and his enablers in the press masked his power grab of forcing conscientious objectors to pay for contraception. The press also masked his violation of the Constitution in defining which religious bodies are religious, according to his ideas. Beginning with George Stephanopoulos, most of the press has been a delighted accomplice in misdescribing the issue.
(2) The second deception is that sterilization, contraception, abortifacients — and by logical extension, at the proper hour, abortion — are not matters of private choice, but matters of women’s health. This definition is then expanded into an enforceable right to women’s health. This supposed right is then expanded into a duty upon others to pay for the private choices and values systems of some women. In other words, this is naked coercion in its most deceptive form, and an illicit and twisted use of rights talk.
Pregnancy is a disease? The destruction of an individual human being within, boy or girl, is a matter of women’s health?
(3) The third hidden premise is that President Obama has the power to make laws respecting the self-understanding of churches. Caesar says that only houses of worship and their ministers count as “church” — so now we see the symbolic meaning behind Obama’s use of the columns of ancient pagan temples at his nomination in 2008. He was dreaming of Caesar. And now he is Caesar, lusting for power over what belongs to Caesar, but also over what belongs to God.
But the Catholic Church, like all Christian churches, has always regarded hospital work and work for the poor and higher education as religious works, essential to true religion. True religion, Deuteronomy teaches, is to care for the widow and the orphan.
Historically, the mother of hospitals, orphanages, schools, and publicly organized systems of assistance to the poor was the Church itself. These things were the Church living vitally in its own members. From the first, the Church was taught by Our Lord Himself to care for prisoners, and the hungry and the thirsty, and the naked, and the ill and the burdened.
The Catholic Church has never understood itself merely as an inside-the-church institution. It regards itself as living in all its members and in their daily work, above all in the works of mercy sketched out by the Sermon on the Mount. The authenticity of worship and public liturgy is proved only when worshippers go out into the world and prove that they love their neighbors by meeting real needs. That is how any Christian knows whether or not he loves God, Whom he does not see — only when he loves his neighbor, whom he does see.
HHS does not see religion that way. Neither does President Obama. The two of them have no scruple about a U.S. administration, for the first time in our history, trampling so heavily, blindly, and arrogantly upon the right of worshippers to define religion in their own way, not the government’s way. Never has an administration stomped so heavily beyond its constitutional powers into the vineyards of religious doctrine and its free exercise.
This despised mandate is, then, a violation by one most powerful political institution, the state, against the integrity of those other major institutions that are outside the power of the state — the churches and synagogues and mosques. The Constitution in its First Amendment insists that “Congress shall make no law . . .” and it clearly does not mean that the president or his Department of Health and Human Services has the constitutional power to do so either.
(4) The fourth hidden premise is that the president also has the power to trample on the free exercise of religion by individual laypersons of faith and devotion. If they do not work directly in a house of worship, the president says, these individuals are bound by this unconstitutional mandate, even if it violates their consciences.
Summarizing (3) and (4), the president’s mandate is not just a violation by the major political institution, the state, against institutions outside the power of the state, the churches and synagogues and mosques. In addition, Caesar is tromping clumsily into the privileged territory of the religious consciences of individuals. Two violations, of institutions and of individuals.
The new Caesars, the totalitarians of our own liberal society, are those who sin against tolerance by laying down their own naked will as the law for others, by deception, and executed through hidden premises. This deception is properly labeled, not as a “contraception mandate,” but as “the grossest violation of the separation of church and state by any administration in American history.”
Michael Novak is distinguished visiting professor at Ave Maria University and co-author, with Jana Novak, of Washington’s God.
Published in National Review Online February 17, 2011