By Alan Bean
When two columnists working for the same newspaper address the same subject (the culture war and the contraception debate) you can learn a lot. Michael Gerson accuses Barack Obama of sustaining our endless American culture war by forcing a conservative Roman Catholic Church to conform to “the liberal values of equality and choice.” In Gerson’s view, the Catholic Church is an inherently conservative, indeed ‘illiberal’, institution. Gerson endorses a pluralistic view of America in which a variety of civic organizations, some liberal and progressive, others illiberal and traditional, co-exist in a free society. But this dream of a pluralistic America is being thwarted by an inherently intolerant “liberal” view of American life in which every individual and institution is expected to conform to the liberal values of equality and choice. By forcing illiberal Catholic medical providers to provide free contraceptive services to their clients, Gerson alleges, the Obama administration is rejecting the pluralistic vision of America and stoking the fires of culture war.
Gerson believes it is a mistake to antagonize conservative institutions because, unlike their liberal counterparts, they encourage
The habits of good citizens — attributes such as self-control, cooperation and respect for the law — don’t emerge spontaneously. They are cultivated in families and religious congregations. The health of liberal political institutions is strengthened by the success of traditional institutions, which often teach values that prepare individuals for the responsible exercise of freedom.
In Gerson’s view, Obama moved to the left on immigration and gay rights because he is an ardent culture warrior who disrespects the views of American conservatives.
Then comes E J Dionne, a progressive columnist who, unlike the evangelical Gerson, happens to be a living, breathing Roman Catholic in good standing. Dionne agrees that Obama’s initial handling of the contraception issue was ham-handed and out of character. Dionne’s Obama is no champion of the liberal view of America. At his core, the president is an even-handed pragmatist who is generally eager to negotiate with his ideological opponents.
In fact, Dionne reminds us, six years ago Obama complained that
There are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word ‘Christian’ describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.
Sounds a lot like Michael Gerson, doesn’t it. Obama dropped the ball on the contraception issue, Dionne admits, but was able to self-correct by offering a compromise that was joyfully embraced by Catholic medical care providers.
Unlike Gerson, Dionne refuses to define the Roman Catholic Church as an inherently traditional or illiberal institution. The Catholic Church is a pragmatic and pluralistic blending of conservative and progressive impulses. Dionne says he remains in the fold largely because
When it comes to lifting up the poor, healing the sick, assisting immigrants and refugees, educating the young (especially in inner cities), comforting orphaned and abandoned children, and organizing the needy to act in their own interest, the church has been there with resources and an astoundingly committed band of sisters, priests, brothers and lay people. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services make the words of Jesus come alive every day.
Moderate Catholics appreciate the president’s willingness to meet the Church half way on contraception and Dionne hopes the conservative wing will tone down its opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage because the American Catholic community is as divided on these issues as the rest of society.
Two views of the Roman Catholic Church; two views of the sitting president. Who wins?
Dionne gets the best of this dust-up. The culture war doesn’t separate illiberal traditionalists like a monolithic Catholicism from liberal, pluralism denying, culture warriors like Obama. Obama has been deeply influenced by both secular liberalism and the traditional values sustained by the Christian Church. Roman Catholics, like most Christian denominations, are split down the middle over culture war issues like gay marriage, abortion and, now, contraception. Gerson’s neat divisions don’t fit either Obama or American Catholicism.
If the president has moved off the fence on gay marriage and immigration it’s because he sees no point in placating ideological opponents for whom the word ‘compromise’ has become the vilest of profanities. Any politician on the right willing to meet the president half way on any contentious issue gets his or her (usually his) mouth washed out with soap in full view of the cameras.
Nice try, Michael, but you didn’t nail it this time.