The stakes are therefore high indeed. And they are high because this is an argument down to first principles. Like other such debates, this one has brought previously obscure aspects of American public life to the surface.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of these revelations is that the secularism of the American Left is not unlike that of its European and Canadian counterparts: it is not benign, civil and tolerant, but narrow, aggressive and hegemonic. It is not content with a civil public arena in which all points of view participate in a robust public debate; it demands a thoroughly secularised public square in which religiously-informed moral argument is neither welcome nor tolerated. That determination to fill the available public space with a deeply secularised and hegemonic secularism coincides, in the case of the Obama administration, with its disdain for Edmund Burke's little platoons, which in the American context remain largely religious platoons.
That disdain has not only put the Obama administration on a collision course with the Catholic Church and with other religious bodies that do not share its commitment to lifestyle libertinism and its assumption that personal wilfulness is the essence of freedom. It has also put the administration on a collision course with the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sharply restricts the ability of the federal government to burden the exercise of religious freedom, and with the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees the free exercise of religion while banning any religious "establishment".
The logic of the First Amendment is that "no establishment" serves the goal of "free exercise": there is no national (or established) church in the United States so that religion may flourish on its own terms, without the evangelically stifling embrace of state power. "Free exercise" is the end; "no establishment" is the means. But this is precisely what the Obama administration denies; for the administration seems to understand "free exercise" as a series of exemptions granted by the state, exemptions carved out of an overwhelmingly secularist public square.
It was not an accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the 20th-century totalitarian regimes, in consolidating their power, first sought to co-opt, and where that was impossible, crush, the institutions of civil society, including religious communities. That totalitarian impulse knows no unique ideological home; it can appear on the Right as well as on the Left. Indeed, if we trace the proximate origins of political modernity back to Hobbes and Leviathan, the hegemonic, anti-pluralist impulse — the passion to fill the public square with state power — seems built into modern politics. Resisting that impulse defines the most fundamental layer of the debate in the United States this election year.
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