The archbishop of Philadelphia. The president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The head of the Union for Traditional Judaism.
What do these three eminent religious leaders have in common? They're among more than 300 distinguished individuals who have signed a statement by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty protesting the Obama administration's infamous contraception mandate.
Their beliefs fall from one end of the theological spectrum to the other. But all agree government has no business forcing every health insurance plan to provide "free" contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
In reality, of course, these things aren't free. The costs will be passed on to employers, including those who have moral objections to them. Apparently they're expected to just check their First Amendment rights at the door. Welcome to the land of the not-so-free.
The White House tried to sell a promised "accommodation" of the objections lodged by religious groups at an unspecified later date. But the Becket Fund group, among others, wasn't fooled.
"This is a grave violation of religious freedom and cannot stand," the group wrote. "It is an insult to the intelligence of Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and other people of faith and conscience to imagine that they will accept an assault on their religious liberty if only it is covered up by a cheap accounting trick."
The true importance of this issue goes deeper than many people realize. Anyone who thinks this is merely a scuffle over religion should think again. Atheists should be just as alarmed as the most devout Catholics, Protestants, Jews or Muslims. That's because this fight really amounts to the latest skirmish in a larger battle over how free we Americans are today.
We're living in the age of unelected bureaucrats. They can run our lives in minute detail, from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to bed at night. In the name of "progress," no area of our lives, no aspect of society is left untouched.
"All is subject to government control, regulatory dictate and administrative whim," writes Matthew Spalding, vice president of American Studies at the Heritage Foundation. "Nothing will be allowed outside of the new regulatory scheme: no independent state programs, no individuals or businesses permitted not to participate, no true private market alternatives."
Today, it's clear that one of the sharpest distinctions between conservatives and progressives lies in our contrasting attitudes to civil society. Conservatives, following Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, see hope and renewal coming from families, churches and civic groups. Progressives see them as fomenting prejudice and ignorance.
For conservatives, social justice is best pursued by restoring community, familial love, self-respect and responsibility, all products of a robust civil society. Progressives, by contrast, believe that social justice means redistributing material wealth.
Today the "clash of visions" between conservatives and progressives over civil society is most apparent in their contrasting responses to the Tea Party movement. For conservatives, the Tea Party movement is a classic example of Edmund Burke's "little platoons" springing into action.
Ordinary Americans, appalled by the sudden, massive expansion of big government and by the equally sudden growth of the national debt, have spontaneously organized into associations demanding change. Were Burke alive today, he surely would cite the rise of the Tea Party movement as vital to the health and well-being of democracy.
It's obvious, though, that progressives are unwilling to give up yet. They're still trying to mold society in their own image. But can they succeed by alienating every major religious group in the country?
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he said he wanted to be a "uniter." It looks as if he finally got his wish.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
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