Like so much of the Obama administration’s social and economic policy, the Constantinianism of the administration is more European than American. In Obamacare and other initiatives, the administration has sought to replicate the European social-welfare state and the European state’s typical relationship to the national economy. The Constantinianism of the administration, although informed by the secularism implicit in that rainbow logo, is an attempt to bring America’s religious communities into a more European relationship to state power, not through church establishment in the classic sense, but through regulation.
Thus we have had the Obama version of the investiture controversy (who gets to choose religious ministers?), played out in the administration’s efforts to repeal the “ministerial exception” to equal-employment-opportunity law (which permits religious communities to order their internal lives according to their own self-understanding). And we have had the Obama equivalent of Josephism in the Obamacare “contraceptive mandate,” although in this instance the effort is not to make the Church into a “department of the police” but into a subdivision of the Department of Health and Human Services.
There is another odd historical twist to the story of the Milvian Bridge and us.
During the battles over religious freedom at Vatican II, one of the last Catholic defenders of church establishment — and thus of the Constantinian settlement — was Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Secretary of the Holy Office, who had long buttressed his support of Catholic establishment with the claim that “error has no rights” (and by “error,” the doughty Ottaviani meant non-Catholic religious conviction). The bishops of Vatican II rejected that claim, on the ground that persons have rights, be their opinions true or false; thus the right of religious freedom, as the Council fathers finally taught, “is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.”
And here is the ironic twist: The secular Constantinians in the Obama administration are also the new defenders of the Ottaviani proposition that “error has no rights.” If the Evangelical Lutheran Hosanna-Tabor congregation in Redland, Mich., doesn’t agree with the U.S. government about Hosanna-Tabor’s employment practices, well, the congregation is wrong, error has no rights, and we’ll see you in court. If the Catholic Church doesn’t agree with the United States government on what constitute “reproductive health services,” the Catholic Church is wrong; and as error has no rights, the Church must be compelled under threat of serious financial penalties to do the government’s bidding (even though the government has a myriad of ways to distribute contraceptives and provide sterilizations and abortifacient drugs). As for the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Obama Justice Department has declined to defend, well, those who support DOMA are clearly wrong, according to the U.S. government; such an egregious error (an offense to everything symbolized by that rainbow logo) has no rights; thus these wrong-headed people can be portrayed as irrational bigots, and the law they seek to defend can be pilloried as a mirror image of the old segregation laws.
Barack Obama as the Holy Roman Emperors Henry IV or Joseph II? It may seem a stretch. Still, the record is clear, and the historical parallels to the investiture controversy and Josephism are suggestive. The strategic goal of binding the churches (and indeed every other civil-society institution) ever closer to the federal government is plainly in view. A court jester is at hand (the vice president of the United States, who recently opined that transgender discrimination is “the civil-rights issue of our time”).
But America can say goodbye to all that on November 6. And in doing so, it can reaffirm its own experience of religious freedom, which has given biblical religion in America an unparalleled vitality in the developed world.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.