‘Have you heard of the Little Sisters of the Poor?”
Earlier this month, all eyes were on Arizona, as a fight over a religious-liberties question morphed into a shoutdown about civil rights. Asked about it on a radio show, Mark Brnovich, a lifelong Arizonan, focused on a group of religious sisters who serve the elderly poor.
A former prosecutor, Brnovich, who is Eastern Orthodox, pointed to the Little Sisters to try to focus our civic attention on religious freedom. They are self-sacrificial women ensuring that the vulnerable are not cast aside and left alone. They are religious sisters who are among over 300 plaintiffs in 94 cases currently suing the Department of Health and Human Services over its Obamacare mandate that requires employers to provide health insurance that covers abortion pills, contraception, and sterilization. In the case of the Little Sisters, they qualify as a religious group under Obama-administration definitions, but still are mandated to provide their employees insurance coverage that violates their consciences. They are facing a choice that no one should be forced to make: either agree to a type of insurance that they believe is immoral, or face crippling fines, or get out of the business of serving the poor.
The Little Sisters, in a way, are a good starting point for understanding Brnovich and his campaign for the Republican nomination for attorney general of Arizona.
“We have a moral obligation as a society to protect the vulnerable — whether they are unborn, children, or adults,” Brnovich said during a recent trip to Washington, D.C. He went on to cite examples where federal regulations might infringe on a state’s ability to protect children in foster care or to protect the elderly from abuse.
He doesn’t spout talking points about states’ rights as if learned during rote memorization at a campaign school. Indeed, Brnovich says that he doesn’t talk about “states’ rights” because “people have rights, not states,” demonstrating some of the wonkishness of a former think-tanker (with the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute) well-versed in public policy. His aside is an important reminder that rights are not created by the government but are supposed to be protected by it.
Brnovich is running for attorney general of Arizona at a time when the attorney general of the United States actively encourages such law-enforcement officials to ignore the law — particularly on marriage — if they disagree with it. This, of course, is not the proper role of the executive branch’s chief legal counsel.
Brnovich — like Adam Paul Laxalt, who is running for attorney general in Nevada, and sitting attorney general Scott Pruitt in Oklahoma — represents a pushback: a generation of leaders who feel a renewed responsibility to the law and to moral stewardship of laws that help the individual flourish in a healthy republic with a robust civil society. I mention these three men in particular because in recent months I’ve spent a little time with each one of them and am impressed by the depth of their knowledge, service, civic sensitivity, and rootedness.
Asked at one point if he has watched Breaking Bad, Brnovich replies that having seen the damage meth does, he couldn’t bear it. He also tells us that his two daughters are involved in lots of sports, and he doesn’t have much spare time for television. You get the sense that whatever the issue, he has a person in mind. Losing track of the human person and the impact a policy or law might have on her seems at the top of his mind.
“Every government that is big enough to give you everything is big enough to take things away,” he says. Again, it sounds less like a talking point than a rallying cry and an invitation to civic reflection.
His philosophy of government is experiential at least as much as it is intellectual — he seems to find it in the blood that flows within him and the air he breathes. This has a lot to do with his mother, a native of the former Yugoslavia. He recalls her matter-of-factly telling his daughters the other day a story of Soviet invaders in her village. The blessings of liberty are not taken for granted in the Brnovich home.
Visiting the nation’s capital just a few days before the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the cases brought by the evangelical Green family that runs the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain and the Mennonite Hahn family that operates Conestoga Wood, a Pennsylvania cabinet-making company, Brnovich returns to the issue of religious liberty, emphasizing that if we lost it, we would be losing something fundamental.
“Just because you open your business to the public doesn’t mean the public has the right to run your business,” Brnovich says. “Just because you have a restaurant doesn’t mean it becomes public property.”
The traditional image of Lady Justice, often seen in courthouses and halls of government, has both scales and a sword. Don’t forget that sword, Brnovich cautions, as if to remind himself as much as anyone else. Reflecting on some of the executive and judicial tendencies of the day, he says it is “bad enough when politicians get into the business of picking winners and losers.” When you have the power of the state sword you have a “solemn obligation” and “are held to a higher standard.” Above all, this means using that power to protect and defend the innocent and vulnerable.
We end where we began, remembering that America is an experiment in democratic republican government that has always, albeit imperfectly, operated with a sense of thanksgiving and duty. People throughout the world look to us. We protect freedom here. We give people a chance here. Our laws reflect a natural law and order here. We want the Little Sisters of the Poor here.
We do, don’t we? That’s a leading question of the hour as we make choices — by indifference as much as by activism — about the future of our lives, families, churches, communities, institutions, states, nation, and world. Are we good stewards or not?
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.