Commentary: Leviathan, Civil Society and National Morality
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Commentary: Leviathan, Civil Society and National Morality

Don’t blame the culture wars for the recent debates about contraception, says Phillip W. De Vous in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Apr. 4), the real culprit is statism. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Leviathan, Civil Society and National Morality

by Phillip W. De Vous

Political campaigns in every era have included talk of morality and moral principles in general. They rarely shy away from discussing even very specific moral issues if those issues are currently in the air or of national salience.  The current presidential campaign, however, has been by any reckoning almost surreal in its discussion of very intimate and personal moral issues.  This reality is perfectly illustrated in the current debate over contraception and the contraceptive mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services that forces all insurers to cover birth control and other “un-family” planning.

This is interesting.  Many of my fellow conservatives think that the reason the contraception issue has made such a dramatic appearance in this political season is due to a new outbreak of the ongoing culture wars that have been afflicting American unity since the 1960s.  There is some truth in that analysis, but it is incomplete.  The appearance of these controversial, even intimate moral issues has more to do with the unchecked growth of state power incarnate in the welfare state.  The ideology that is fueling this debate is known as statism.  This idea and form of governing insists that there is no real limit to the coercive and confiscatory power of the state as it applies to the lives of citizens.  It views the people of a nation not as citizens who are sovereign but as subjects to be “cared” for, directed, and regulated.

It is because the reach of the state has intruded so deeply into the most intimate details of people’s lives—from the kind of light bulbs we use to whether someone needs contraception—that such issues of intimate morality have been taken out of their traditional province, the individual conscience, and thus out of the privacy of the sphere of civil society.  The vehicle for this latest breach of the boundary between the private and the public realm of morality has been the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as “Obamacare.”  No matter how one construes the thousands of provisions, rules, regulations, and mandates of this piece of legislation—Justice Scalia last week implied that reading it would be “cruel and unusual punishment”—it has as its bottom line this unavoidable fact: the control and total regulation of a citizen’s healthcare.

Obamacare is part of a never-ending series of government programs created to “help.”  In actuality, these programs, whether one agrees with their details or not, intrude deeply into people’s personal lives and habits, along with their health, business, and finances. Such programs, created by legislation as well as by executive and bureaucratic fiat, guide, direct, and regulate larger and larger tracts of individual, familial, and personal life.  Because of this deep penetration of the political into the realm of personal and communal privacy, more and more divisive, “hot-button” moral issues have been wrongly thrust into the public square.  The fact that so many moral issues, especially those connected to intimate acts and choices, have become matters of national political discussion is a sure sign that we are experiencing the effects of a personally oppressive, as well as a politically regressive statism.

Many, if not most, of these issues of personal and of communal morality are not matters that should be exposed to the exploitation and vagaries of politics.  In a nation with a healthy civil society, unmolested by statist aggression, these issues would be worked out by individuals within the confines of their personal lives, within the respective communities of meaning to which they belong and in which they participate—family, friends and communities of faith.

The issues that presidential candidates should be talking about are the issues that form the broad national agenda, which is within their purview to guide:  Establishing pro-growth economic policies, focusing on foreign policy challenges, such as Syria, the broader Middle-East, North Korea and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a thuggish Russia under Putin, among many others. How about focusing on our need for a sensible national energy policy that sets us on a road to energy independence and job creation?  Why can’t candidates focus more intently on national defense?  After all, we are in two wars, with aggressors around the world aiming to harm the United States and its citizens.  How about talking intelligently about the entitlement problem, with its trillions in unfunded liabilities, especially when the failure to address them will result in the fiscal collapse of the nation?

Frankly, it is bizarre to see presidential candidates—men and women campaigning for the right to serve and guide the broad national agenda—talking at some length about the issues of contraception, pornography, sin, Satan, and sex.  Those issues, which are matters of great importance to the goodness and wholeness of a person, belong to the zone of the soul, reside in the purview of conscience, and should be worked out in the realm of civil society.  On the whole, these are matters that are to be handled by parents, priests, preachers, friends, and family, not by presidential candidates.  Certainly a president needs to be a man of character, but the fact that government has grown so large and invaded every aspect of life explains why presidential candidates are talking, or are feeling forced to talk, about these personal topics, rather than those that pertain to the public issues that constitute the national agenda.

Conservative candidates for president need to be focusing on the size and scope of a government that has breached its constitutional boundaries and exceeded its fiscal possibilities. This abuse occurred due to a lack of constitutionally conservative government and profligate spending designed to subsidize and buy off larger portions of the populace.  Those issues are within the purview of the political.  One quick way to begin defusing the culture wars is to put government back within its constitutional boundaries and focus on restoring civil society to its proper—and indeed, larger—place it must occupy if America is to remain the free, virtuous, and authentically pluralistic place it has been in the past.

My faith teaches me to convince others of the validity and goodness of certain truths, person to person, forming a culture that leads to a moral consensus. That is where the true morality of a nation is formed, not in the electoral or political sphere. Until Leviathan is slain, we will continue to see presidents and presidential candidates acting as preachers, proclaiming their morality, and continue to wonder at the sight of preachers talking politics from the pulpit.  Perhaps due to the unwholesome reality created by American’s present cultural, moral, and political disorder, such a chaotic mixing of roles and issues is necessary, but I can’t shake the feeling that it is a bad idea for the civil society, personal conscience, and the public square.

Fr. Phillip W. De Vous is the pastor of St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Crescent Springs, Ky.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).