A recent episode of the “Diane Rhem Show,” one of the most listened-to public radio programs in the country, featured a conversation with Sandra Fluke. Fluke, as you may recall, is the former Georgetown Law School student who testified before Congress in favor of the HHS mandate. She was then turned into a kind of “martyr” when Rush Limbaugh made outrageous comments about her personal life.
Not surprisingly, Fluke defended the HHS mandate on the “Diane Rehm Show” as well. Nothing especially noteworthy here.
What is noteworthy, although not surprising, is the grounds on which Fluke justified the infringement of religious freedom: the right of women to bodily autonomy and the benefits to society from universal, subsidized contraception.
It’s noteworthy not because it represents something new, but on the contrary, it represents something as old as the modern state itself.
This is the conclusion of a fascinating and important article on the "First Things" website written by Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame.
The title of the article, “President Obama’s Campaign for Leviathan,” a reference to philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ book of that name, does the piece a disservice by suggesting that the problem is of recent vintage. That’s not at all the case.
As Deneen tells us, “the origin of the [HHS] mandate lies in an impulse that can be dated back to the beginnings of the modern era and the rise of the state.” If your history is a bit rusty, the beginnings of the modern era date back to the early-to-middle 17th century.
The “impulse” Deneen is referring to is the way that the modern state, as described by Hobbes, poses as a kind of “liberator.” In this case, the one being “liberated” is the individual. What he — or in this case, she — is being liberated from is interference, or even the fear of interference, from other individuals. The “liberation” offered by the modern state is the freedom to “pursue his or her own ends” as he or she sees fit.
In other words, personal autonomy.
Of course, there’s a catch: in exchange for being liberated, individuals must pledge their primary allegiance to the state. Every other traditional allegiance — to family, church and community — is seen as secondary and voluntary. They have no authority over us apart from what we choose to let them have, which, practically-speaking, means none at all, since we can always change our minds.
In this telling, religion is less than a private matter — it’s an individual one. Religious teachings about, well, anything, can bind the individual’s conscience, but any larger applicability is dependent on whether it meets the state’s interests.
It was this vision of the modern state that set in motion the forces that, over time, led to what the late Richard John Neuhaus called the “naked public square.” I say “over time” because the kind of secularization Deneen wrote about unfolded gradually. But while the American founders, for the most part, viewed religion and religious freedom as vital for the maintenance of self-government, the seeds of secularization were present at the birth of the republic.
Those seeds have sprouted in full. Fluke’s justification for the HHS mandate is, consciously or not, straight out of Hobbes’ playbook: religious freedom sacrificed in the name of personal autonomy and allegiance to the state.
What should our response be? Well, that’s the subject of Monday’s broadcast. And this weekend please listen to BreakPoint this Week, where my guests and I tackle American education, another area where Leviathan can be seen.
In the meantime, please come to BreakPoint.org, click on this commentary, and read Professor Deneen’s insightful "First Things" article.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: October 12, 2012