It is hard for many of us to understand why so many leftists have worked themselves up into a frothing frenzy over the 5-4 SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision, a frenzy that in the notable cases of Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton has spilled over into shameless lying. But even among those lefties who are not lying about the decision, and who understand what it was and just how narrow and circumscribed it was, there are those who are still going nuts over it. Why?
The upshot of the decision was that closely-held, for-profit companies such as Hobby Lobby may not be coerced by the government into providing exactly four, count 'em, four, abortion-inducing contraceptives for its employees in violation of the religious beliefs of the proprietors of the company. That's it!
(Parenthetical Terminological Observation: There is an interesting terminological question here that perhaps only philosophers could get excited over, namely: how can a substance or device that destroys a fertilized egg, a conceptus, be legitimately referred to as contraceptive? A genuine contraceptive device, such as a diaphragm, prevents conception, prevents the coming into being of a conceptus. Contraception comes too late once there is a fertilized ovum on the scene. 'Abortifacient contraceptive' is a contradictio in adjecto. Call me a pedant if you like, but what you call pedantry, I call precision. One ought to insist on precision in these matters if one is serious and intellectually honest.)
My question again: why the liberal-left frenzy over such a narrow and reasonable Supreme Court decision, one that did not involve the interpretation of the Constitution, but the mere construction of a statute, i.e., the interpretation of an existing law? (And of course, the decision did not first introduce the notion that corporations may be viewed as persons!)
Megan McArdle provides some real insight in her piece, Who's the Real Hobby Lobby Bully?
She makes three main points.
1. The first point is that ". . . while the religious right views religion as a fundamental, and indeed essential, part of the human experience, the secular left views it as something more like a hobby, so for them it’s as if a major administrative rule was struck down because it unduly burdened model-train enthusiasts."
First a quibble. It is not correct to imply that it is only the religious right that views religion as an essential component of human experience; almost all conservatives do, religious and nonreligious. I gave an example the other day of the distinguished Australian philosopher David M. Armstrong who, while an atheist and a naturalist, had the greatest respect for religion and considered it an essential part of human experience.
Well, could religion be reasonably viewed as a hobby? Obviously not. It cuts too deep. Religion addresses the ultimate questions, the questions as to why we exist, what we exist for, and how we ought to live. It purports to provide meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence. Religions make total claims on the lives of their adherents, and those who take their religion seriously apply it to every aspect of their lives: it is not something that can be hived off from the rest of one's life like a hobby.
It is because of this total claim that religions make to provide ultimate understanding, meaning, and directives for action that puts it at odds with the totalizing and the fully totalitarian state. The ever-expanding, all-controlling centralized state will brook no competitors when it comes to the provision of the worldview that will guide and structure our lives. This is why hostility to religion is inscribed into the very essence of the Left. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there cannot really be a religious Left: those on the Left who are 'religious' live as if leftism is their real religion.
I would reformulate McArdle's first point as follows. The Left has no understanding of religion and no appreciation of it. They see it as a tissue of superstitions and prejudices that contributes nothing to human flourishing. They want it suppressed, or else marginalized: driven from the public square into the realm of the merely private.
That the SCOTUS majority took religion seriously is therefore part of what drives leftists crazy.
2. McArdle's second point has to do with negative and positive rights and the role of the state. A positive right is a right to be provided with something, and a negative right is a right to not having something taken away. Thus my right to life is a negative right, a right that generates in others the duty to refrain from killing me among other things. The right to free speech is also a negative right: it induces in the government the duty not to prevent me from publishing my thoughts on this weblog, say. But I have no positive right to be provided with the equipment necessary to publish a weblog. I have the negative right to acquire such equipment, but not the positive right to have it provided for me by any person or by the state.
Now suppose you think that people have the positive right to health care or health care insurance and that this includes the right to be provided with abortifacients or even with abortions. Then the crunch comes inevitably. There is no positive right to an abortion, we conservatives say, and besides, abortion is a grave moral evil. If the state forces corporations like Hobby Lobby to provide abortions or abortifacients, then it violates the considered moral views of conservatives. It forces them to to support what they consider to be a grave moral evil.
People have the legal right to buy and use the contraceptives they want. But they don't have the right to use the coercive power of the state to force others to pay for them when the contraceptives in question violate the religious beliefs of those who are forced to pay for them. To a conservative that is obvious.
But it riles up lefties who hold that (i) religion is a purely private matter that must be kept private; (ii) there is a positive right to health care; (iii) abortion is purely a matter of a woman's reproductive health.
3. McArdle's third point has to do with the Left's destruction of civil society. I would put it like this. The Left aims to eliminate the buffering elements of civil society lying between the naked individual and the state. These elements include the family, private charities, businesses, service organizations and voluntary associations of all kinds. As they wither away, the state assumes more of their jobs. The state can wear the monstrous aspect of Leviathan or that of the benevolent nanny whose multiple tits are so many spigots supplying panem et circenses to the increasingly less self-reliant masses. To cite just one example, the Obama administration promotes ever-increasing food stamp dependency to citizens and illegal aliens alike under the mendacious SNAP acronym thereby disincentivizing relief and charitable efforts at the local level while further straining an already strapped Federal treasury. A trifecta of stupidity and corruption, if you will: the infantilizing of the populace who now needs federal help in feeding itself; the fiscal irresponsibility of adding to the national debt; the assault on the institutions of civil society out of naked lust for ever more centralized power in the hands of the Dems, the left wing party. (Not that the Repubs are conservative.)
From the foregoing one can see just how deep the culture war goes. It is a struggle over the nature of religion, its role in human flourishing, and its place in society. It is a battle over the nature of rights. It is a war over the size and scope and role of government, the limits if any on state power, and the state's relation to the individual and to the institutions of civil society.
In one sense, Alan Dershowitz was right to refer to the Hobby Lobby decision as "monumentally insignificant." In another sense wrong: the furor over it lays bare the deep philosophical conflicts that divide us.