Peace in the culture wars — if the left wants it


Protesters pray at the steps of the Supreme Court as arguments begin today to challenge the Affordable Care Act's requirement that employers provide coverage for contraception as part of an employee's health care, in Washington March 25, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • The Hobby Lobby case hinges largely on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

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  • When conservatives invoke religious liberty, liberals doubt these objections are sincere.

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  • By getting government out of people’s lives we could accomplish peace in the Culture Wars.

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Sometimes it’s hard to believe the other side is being honest.

Democratic politicians and liberal writers accuse Christian employers of “tell[ing] women what to do with their bodies,” and trying to “control” “access to birth control.”

But a contraception ban is not on a table. Forcing religious business owners to buy birth control is the matter at hand in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, on which the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday.

The Hobby Lobby case hinges largely on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. When conservatives invoke religious liberty – whether it's employers who oppose the contraception mandate or wedding photographers who want the right to say no to a gay wedding – liberals doubt these objections are sincere.

Feminist writer and former Democratic operative Amanda Marcotte wrote on the Hobby Lobby case: “Religion is just the fig leaf draped over what is really an attempt to open up the war on reproductive rights to attacks on contraception access.”

Planned Parenthood, commenting on Hobby Lobby and on efforts to force small businesses to participate in gay weddings, accuses businesses of seeking a “license to discriminate under the guise of religious liberty.”

Do Marcotte and the abortion lobby think Hobby Lobby’s owners or New Mexico wedding photographer Elaine Huguenin are just lying about their religious beliefs? That this is an evil plot to enslave gays and women?

The chasm between Left and Right seems uncrossable, particularly because conservatives see religious liberty arguments as the last redoubt in the culture war: you guys won your gay marriages, permissive abortion laws, taxpayer-subsidized birth control, and divorce-on-demand; let us just live our lives according to our own consciences.

But for the Left, that's intolerable, unless conservatives lock their consciences behind closed church doors. Liberal writer Emily Bazelon actually defends the contraception mandate as a “Live and Let Live” policy.

Is there any bridging this gap?

I saw a flicker of hope last weekend at a libertarian dinner featuring psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind. Haidt inspired me to try to understand the mindset of religious liberty’s enemies.

For one thing, many liberals have a different idea of liberty. Liberals often don’t distinguish between government power and non-government power. They note that employers have real power over employees. Because liberals don’t see employment as a fully voluntary arrangement in which both parties are free to set the terms, they don't value employers' pleas for "liberty."

More important, Haidt notes, this is about the sacred on both sides. Christian conservatives think marriage is a sacred bond, tied up with family formation. Christians also believe in the sanctity of life from conception. Secular liberals, Haidt has concluded, hold sacred the plight of the traditionally oppressed — including women and gays.

Feminist Marcotte was explicit about this: “Hobby Lobby is angling to deprive women of their religious liberty to use their own health care plans as they see fit,” she writes in the Daily Beast.

The Pill is not just a pill to them. It has become something holy. And they won’t tolerate any burden between them and their Blessed Sacrament.

The culture war isn’t religious versus secular. It’s a clash of two faiths.

Interestingly, mandate champion Sandra Fluke provides us with a way out: “Your boss shouldn't be involved in your health care decisions -- that's common sense,” she wrote this week.

Exactly. Your boss shouldn't be telling you what pills to take, and he shouldn't be paying for your pills. To get peace in this arena, we have to disentangle employment from health care, which requires repealing parts of Obamacare and scrapping the tax preferences for employer-based insurance.

Also, peace can be made on the broader religious liberty question. Some on the secular Left see appeals to religious liberty as special pleading. Why should the religious have special rights and be immune from the civil law?

Religion is explicitly favored by the First Amendment and the RFRA, but these protections could be broadened to cover all conscience rights.

An example: Some secular liberals find circumcision immoral. If a photographer felt that way, should he really be compelled by non-discrimination law to photograph a Jewish bris ceremony?

Whether your moral code comes from a religious or secular teaching, the government should take great effort to avoid forcing you to violate your conscience.

Here’s one rule to make it even simpler: If there’s a serious debate over a religious exemption to a proposed law, the proposed law probably reaches too far into people’s private affairs, and should be scrapped.

By getting government out of people’s lives — how they run their business, whom they love, and what pills they take — we could accomplish peace in the Culture Wars. The question is: Does the Left want peace?

Timothy P. Carney, a senior political columnist for the Washington Examiner, can be contacted at [email protected] This column is reprinted with permission from

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