Hobby Lobby reveals how public and private spheres have changed in the last few decades

Church rejects Obama as GodBack in the 1980s, when I was a good ol” liberal Democrat (sort of in the Kennedy mold), I kept hearing those Bible Thumpers in the Moral Majority bandy about a word: “Secularist.”

What the heck was that? Nobody I knew (and everyone I knew was a person of the sort-of Left) called him or herself a “secularist.”

What in the world did those zealots mean by labeling me that way and pretending that I’m doing something damaging to them? I understood what was really going on:  Very religious people were abnormal, and then there were the rest of us who were non-religious, or slightly religious in a genteel, non-obtrusive fashion.  The fact that our “religion”  closely paralleled the Democrat Party platform, meaning that laws were informed by our “religious” values was just a coincidence.

We were not foisting anything on them.  If anything, they were the foisters, especially with their stupid pro-Life values.

I’ve obviously come a long way from then, haven’t I?

One of the things that helped me on my journey to rationality was Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief. It was he who explained to me that to hold values in opposition to traditional Christianity is itself a value system.

Bingo! Light bulb moment. As of 1994, I finally understood what the Moral Majority was complaining about. I didn’t yet agree with the values they advanced, but I instantly became much more sympathetic to their complaints about Leftist, secular culture encroaching upon them.

The societal change Carter noted — that the absence of religious values (as opposed to religious doctrine) was taking over the public forum — has only accelerated in recent years. I actually hadn’t thought about it in any specific way until I read Megan McArdle’s very thoughtful post about the Left’s hysteria in response to the Supreme Court’s extremely narrow, common-sensical Hobby Lobby ruling.

For conservatives, even non-religious ones, the ruling’s correctness was a no-brainer:  The holding that government cannot compel people to purchase a product inconsistent with core doctrinal beliefs is true both to the Constitution and to the traditional American ethos of keeping the state out of people’s religion.

But what if the state itself is the people’s religion? McArdle believes that this trend, which sees public space co-opted by non-religious beliefs that have been themselves elevated to absolute “values” explains much of the hysteria, not among the professional Left, but among ordinary DemProgs.  The change in attitude McArdle notes explains both why Leftists cannot appreciate the seriousness of the issue for religious people and why they do not view the Obama administration’s actions as coercive.

I’m quoting McArdle at some length here, because the logic underlying her theory is so tightly constructed, it’s difficult for me to quote her without doing damage to her reasoning.  I urge you, though, to read the whole thing:

I think a few things are going on here. The first 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. That emotional disconnect makes it hard for the two sides to even debate; the emotional tenor quickly spirals into hysteria as one side says “Sacred!” and the other side says, essentially, “Seriously? Model trains?” That shows in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent, where it seems to me that she takes a very narrow view of what role religious groups play in the lives of believers and society as a whole.

The second, and probably more important, problem is that the long compromise worked out between the state and religious groups — do what you want within very broad limits, but don’t expect the state to promote it — is breaking down in the face of a shift in the way we view rights and the role of the government in public life.

To see what I mean, consider an argument I have now heard hundreds of times — on Facebook, in my e-mail, in comment threads here and elsewhere: “Hobby Lobby’s owners have a right to their own religious views, but they don’t have a right to impose them on others.”As I wrote the day the decision came out, the statement itself is laudable, yet it rings strange when it’s applied to this particular circumstance. How is not buying you something equivalent to “imposing” on you?

I think you can understand this, however, as the clash of principles designed for a world of negative rights, in a society that has come to embrace substantial positive rights — as well as a clash between old and new concepts of what is private and what is public.

All of us learned some version of “You have the right to your beliefs, but not to impose them on others” in civics class. It’s a classic negative right. And negative rights are easy to make reciprocal: You have a right to practice your religion without interference, and I have a right not to have your beliefs imposed on me.

This works very well in situations in which most of the other rights granted by society are negative rights, because negative rights don’t clash very often. Oh, sure, you’re going to get arguments about noise ordinances and other nuisance abatements, but unless your religious practices are extreme indeed, the odds that they will substantively violate someone else’s negative rights are pretty slim.


Alongside this development, as Yuval Levin has pointed out, we have seen an ongoing shift, particularly on the left, in the balance between what constitutes the private and the public spheres, and who has powers in which sphere. There’s a reductive tendency in modern political discourse to view public versus private as the state versus the individual.

In the 19th century, the line between the individual and the government was just as firm as it is now, but there was a large public space in between that was nonetheless seen as private in the sense of being mostly outside of government control — which is why we still refer to “public” companies as being part of the “private” sector. Again, in the context of largely negative rights, this makes sense. You have individuals on one end and a small state on the other, and in the middle you have a large variety of private voluntary institutions that exert various forms of social and financial coercion, but not governmental coercion — which, unlike other forms of coercion, is ultimately enforced by the government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.


[O]utside of our most intimate relationships, almost everything else is now viewed as public, which is why Brendan Eich’s donation to an anti-gay-marriage group became, in the eyes of many, grounds for firing.

For many people, this massive public territory is all the legitimate province of the state. Institutions within that sphere are subject to close regulation by the government, including regulations that turn those institutions into agents of state goals — for example, by making them buy birth control for anyone they choose to employ. It is not a totalitarian view of government, but it is a totalizing view of government; almost everything we do ends up being shaped by the law and the bureaucrats appointed to enforce it. We resolve the conflict between negative and positive rights by restricting many negative rights to a shrunken private sphere where they cannot get much purchase.

Put another way, once upon time, things not directly within the government purview were neutral territory in which I didn’t impose upon or demand from you, and you didn’t impose upon and demand from me.  We might have thought the other excessively moral or immoral, but we danced together in uneasy harmony.

Beginning in the 1980s, though, the Left co-opted the public space, declaring that it was not neutral territory but was, instead, government territory.  Further, because Leftists deny that their belief in non-Christian values is itself a value, they insist that by doing so they’re not infringing on First Amendment rights.  They insist upon this denial even as they promote and guard their own secular faith with all the vehemence of a true religious zealot.

The Obama healthcare mandate reflects the fact that, for the Left, the distinction between your private religious space and all the other public government faith space has morphed again.  Now, as a person of faith, the only space you have that’s yours is within the four walls of your home.  Everything else is within the public purview, meaning that it’s under government control and government values (which are, by definition, statist, hostile to matters of faith, and identical to the Democrat platform).  With this rejiggered view of public and private, the government is not infringing upon your religion if it imposes obligations on you (even obligations that directly contradict your faith) as long as it is not constraining you within your own home.

Put another way, the DemProg interpretation of the First Amendment’s promise that the government cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion boils down to this:  I can’t force you to pay for or perform an abortion on your own daughter (provided she lives in your house), but I am not impinging on your faith if I force you to pay for or perform an abortion on your neighbor’s daughter.   Under this definition, your objection to paying for or performing that abortion on the neighbor’s child constitutes an unreasonable attempt to enforce religious values in the public arena.

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  • lee

    I’ve been noodling this thing around for awhile. And trying to write about it. This realization that the Left have replaced made the State their religion. And that they are trying to force it on us.

    I still think it goes back to something I’ve been saying for a few years now: Throughout history, there have been a cataclysmic changes that leads to a totally new framework for society.

    While the Renaissance was already starting, I think the Black Death was so cataclysmic, that it ushered in a whole new framework of thought that enabled the Renaissance to really flower. I think that the Black Death was so horrible thatIt really shook people’s faith in God, and how they viewed Man’s relationship with God. I think that there was a sense that God might not be quite as powerful or as all encompassing as they thought he has been. This have Man confidence to expand, explore. My shorthand way of expressing this is that the Black Death knocked Good of the pedestal and replaced Him with Man.

    Valuing Man more, people could really blossom as they did during the Renaissance–art, science, exploration, invention. And it continued on until…

    The 20th century. Then we had massive war–World War I, World War II. Genocides like the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian Genocide, the Great Leap Forward… Massive murder to murder. And this shook Man’s faith in himself. And I know we’ve been going through the response to this.

    If God was knocked off his pedestal and replaced with Man, what happens when Man is knocked off his pedestal?

    We re to close in time to really tell. But I know that all this craziness: the PoMo bulls***, where truth is relative, and turning the State into God has something to do with it…

    Maybe Man is getting knocked off the pedestal to be replaced with the State?

    (I have the “swipe the keyboard” function that makes typing on my phone easier. There are a selection of words that you can choose from–they likeliest is used unless a different one is selected. I found it fascinating that my auto spell part of this function does not bring up the word “God” as an option: good, food, and hood.)

    • Libby

      Maybe man is being replaced with Self? So much now is based on emotions, identity and gestures..
      * * *

      Excellent post, Book! Really helps put the Left’s response in perspective. It’s been so baffling.

  • lee

    Think about it: people are relegating much of what was the purview of the Church and the Family to the State. The poor where tended to by the Church. Now people expect the State to do it all: Welfare, SNAP,EBT, Medicaid… They also expect the State to determine what is RIGHT and what is WRONG–set morals and teach them. People want LAWS where once people were taught right and wrong in Sunday School and by their parents.

    Hospitals were once pretty much mostly religious charities. Now since we’ve decided that healthcare is a “right” there is nothing “religious” nor “charitable” about a hospital anymore. Which is why the Left’s Clements over the Little Sisters.

  • lee

    “The Left’s CLUELESS over the Little Sisters…”


    We once had a better sense of morality, of manners. Now, people seem too wrapped up in what is owed them, and what the y WANT to do. And I think part of it had to do with what I said at the begining–Man of his pedestal. And Man of his pedestal has become viewed, and everything associated with Man, specifically Western Man who developed out of the Renaissance–as worthless dung heaps. (Which is why they don’t have a problem with gay-hanging, woman-stoning, suicide-bombing Islamists–they are not of this same Fallen Man.)

    The other reason the morality and manners h have gone out the window is because–went given it over to the State to determine. And the State is who ever the rabble happens to let stand in Power.

  • biancaneve

    The Deseret News has an interesting article, What Happens When Society Rejects a Faith-Based Moral Standard, about Gordon College in Massachusetts that is up for re-accreditation after the college’s president signed an open letter to Obama asking for religious liberty protection under proposed federal anti-discrimination rules for LGBTs. Can the government force religious schools to hire gays despite their religious beliefs? Will religious entities be allowed to act on their religious beliefs that are in conflict with the secular society?


    • http://www.marchhareshouse.blogspot.com March Hare

      Playing the “Devil’s Advocate” here for a moment…

      Looking back, the Federal Government started invading the private space with Brown v. Board of Education. “Separate but Equal” was declared illegal and suddenly the Feds were interfering with local school districts. The actual problem was racial separation; it was that the schools were ~objectively~ UNEQUAL in treatment and resources.

      And there was the Fair Housing Law. You might own the property, but the Feds can tell you to whom you can rent. And if you rent to a family with children, chances are there is going to be more wear-and-tear than if you rent to an older couple. If you have a moral objection to unmarried couples co-habitating, too bad. You can be forced to rent to them. (Just to clarify, I understand there was, and still is, significant discrimination related to renting housing. An acquaintance of mine, born and raised in San Francisco, had doors slammed in her face when she tried to rent in Los Angeles simply because her ethnic background is Mexican.)

      One of my favorite sayings is “The Road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions.” I would argue that the above court rulings, along with many others, are examples of this. No one wants to see children kept from receiving a good education, from living in well-maintained housing, or receiving needed medical and dental care. The default has switching from it being a local community obligation to that of the larger government.

      Oh, and, Book, in your abortion example? I may be morally opposed to abortion, BUT if my daughter wants one, she can obtain one without my consent. And I’m paying for it through taxes and through my medical insurance that she’s covered under. Same is true for birth control.

      • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

        And why should any citizen pay Planned Parenthood in taxes so that PP can wipe out entire sections of humanity, blacks included?

      • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

        Taxes were built like a sort of pyramid scheme, so that they could justify that your taxes went somewhere else, so you either didn’t pay PP or you only paid like 5% of PP. The other rich people had their money, literally, paying for it.

        In Hobby Lobby, the case is 100% direct. There’s no obfuscation, and thus it’s easier to see and harder to deny.

  • Wolf Howling

    There is, I think, a fundamental fallacy in the definition of the word secular as being “separate and apart from religion.” Perhaps that definition seemed valid when Christianity was the dominant informer of our societal views, but in that context, “secularism” was in essence a descriptive term for religious tolerance.

    But what we see today is that “secularism” does not mean “apart from religion.” Secularism has co-opted atheism and has emerged as itself a religion, and, ironically, a dangerously intolerant religion.

    One believes either in the primacy of a God or in the absence of a higher being, and thus by default the primacy of man. Both are by definition faith based. And both use a very different set of considerations when deciding on the morality or immorality of a particular act. For Christians, it is how does the bible treat such an act. For secularists, it is what promotes the greater public good (as they themselves define “good”).

    Our founders never intended the anti-establishment clause (no state religion) to divest generic Christianity or the then omnipresent judeo-christian ethic from the public sphere, but by failing to view secularism as a religion, the state has in essence established secularism as the state religion.

    With secularism established at that level, the next step is equating the state with with being the Godhead, which is the very essence of marxism. The state is the ultimate arbiter of morality. And when that’s the case, I would argue that there is no private sphere left.

    The single most troubling aspect of this societal transition to me (it immediately popped into mind with your abortion example) is how the government acts in loco parentis, taking many parenting decisions, particularly on birth control, abortion and abortifaceints out of the hands of the parents. But then, the promotion of what Christians would consider sexual immorality has always been one of, if not the, primary tool in the left / secularist playbook to remake our’s into a “secular” society.

    On a side note, I’ve spent the past several months researching colonial America for a book (almost finished). One of the interesting things that I found was that the Puritans who dominated New England politics for well over a century, outlawed all plays. There reasoning was that dramas led to heresy and debauchery. Given the role of television, movies and song in driving the secular agenda over the past half century, I just shake my head at how prescient they were. Unfortunately, trying to ban such entertainment never was the solution. Co-opting seems to be the only way, but the right has failed at that, not quite completely, but certainly to a large extent.

    As I look at society today, I can’t help but think of the famous Yeats poem, The Second Coming.

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity. . . .

    • lee

      In my noodling, I have been reading a lot about “What is ‘religion?'” And there are not many answers. People who want to make sure that their secularism/atheism is NOT considered a “religion” make sure to add some sort of Divine Being to the definition. But then it gets fluid–when they want to be considered a “religion,” they take it out. There is some very interesting reading on the internet written by an atheist that essentially defines atheism as a religion. I loved it–because then it treats the banishment of Christianity from the public sphere as in sort of a a violation of the establishment clause. (Which I kind of feel it is, at least the way it’s being done these days.)

      • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

        “make sure to add some sort of Divine Being to the definition.”

        Then the Left is out of luck, since their Messiah Hussein is that very thing for them.

        Congress has already violated the Establishment clause in the First Amendment. People just didn’t care enough to do anything about it at the time.

  • JKB

    This fits so well with my thoughts that the DemProgs are seeking to turn back Modernity. At first, I was confused, mixing up secularism (State worship) with politics. But it isn’t, it is an ideology. One that seeks to control the political, economic and society. We see this week that their agenda has even invaded the Marvel universe with Archie being shot trying to protect his gay, gun-control friend and Thor getting in touch with his feminine side.

    I’m just listening to Glenn Reynolds interview with Katie Pavlich on the DemProg War on Women. Katie points out that women’s suffrage was opposed by DemProgs at the time. But then they started the war on women meme for years and accuse Republicans of what the DemProgs did. This is just like Mao did during WWII. He refused to engage Japanese forces with his Communist forces, while Chiang Ka-s did engage in battles. But Mao spread the propaganda that it was the Nationalist who refused to engage the enemy and gained support for himself with that lie.

    And the DemProgs did the same with the Civil Rights. Sure northern Dems were against Jim Crowe, but more Democrats (southern) voted against the Civil Rights Act than Republicans who didn’t vote for it. And yet the theory is, I’ve even read Walter Russell Mead repeat it, that the racists Democrats all in mass changed to Republicans in 1965.

    • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

      “At first, I was confused, mixing up secularism (State worship) with politics. ”

      It’s a common mistake many Americans made about the Left. They thought the alliance and the Democrat founding members were about POLITICS or even Ideology like some kind of idealistic firebrand. It’s not about either one.

      The Left is a death cult. Those that don’t understand death cults, will never understand the Left.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    “that the absence of religious values (as opposed to religious doctrine) was taking over the public forum”

    That’s not correct. Religious values, such as Gaia, Global Warming, Democrat slavery is good, and various Islamic Jihad creeds, are welcome. It’s the Christians and true pacifists that are rejected and persecuted. So “religious” doesn’t mean what people think it means, in the world or in the US. There are good and evil religions. The fact that people think Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses (who I mentioned before visited me often a few years ago) are evil and Islamic Jihad child killing rapists are saints… is the problem, not the solution.

    “is so tightly constructed, it’s difficult for me to quote her without doing damage to her reasoning”

    It’s more complex than it needs to be. Even crazy people like me knew the Left was a death cult years ago. Did I need to write a Thesis or Theory about it? No…. It’s a very simple thing, like the sun rising in the East, what is there to hypothesize or rationalize about?

    Americans are a bunch of slaves these days. You can’t use rationality or beliefs based upon a soul, to convince a slave he needs to starve while being free, when he can just camp out on the fields of the Massa and get free healthcare and food.

    So when people said the Leftist alliance was a Death Cult… what did people think they were? That they were some harmless teddy bears selling Hobby Lobby work sets? What do people think a Cult is? What do people think Death is? Are slaves even educated and literate enough to understand Death or Cults? Doesn’t seem like it in the 21st century.

    ” Now, as a person of faith, the only space you have that’s yours is within the four walls of your home. ”

    Won’t be your home any more once they use Eminent Domain to take it, why do you think Reid owns 70% of Nevada now. Also SWAT no/little knock raids don’t care whose home you are in.

    “This realization that the Left have replaced made the State their religion. And that they are trying to force it on us.”

    It’s as easy for me as breathing. The entire concept of a “state” or “empire” is to force people to get along when they don’t want to even look at each other. That is the entire “foundation” of state power. Like any tool, it can be used for good or evil. Guess which one America is right now.

    “…..Walter Russell Mead repeat it.”

    He’s a Democrat voter, so his brainpower is severely limited compared to a normal human. So even if he started out with more talent, he can’t use half of it now.

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