In his second inaugural address, President Obama talked about doing things “together.”
“Together we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune,” he said.
The president is right that we all need help from time to time, and we must care for our most vulnerable. But when he says “a great nation must,” does that mean it has to be through government?
When a friend went to Russia on a State Department fellowship about 12 years ago, her task was to encourage community service. The concept was foreign, to say the least. She and her colleagues ended up creating a new word in Russian for the idea. She encountered many who wondered why people would want to help one another like that; they saw it as the government’s job.
Nearly a century of communism in the Soviet Union completely hollowed out civil society, which in America includes religious congregations and groups such as the Salvation Army, Boy Scouts and Catholic Charities that voluntarily assist those in need.
Religion, “the opiate of the masses,” was barely tolerated in the former Soviet Union. The communist state took it upon itself to provide for basic needs.
The Heritage Foundation developed the Index of Dependency to measure how the growth of government in America pushes out the charitable work of civil society groups and increases dependence on taxpayer-funded programs. Dependence itself is not a bad thing; we are all dependent at different times. Dependence on family, neighbors, fellow congregants or charities – those who know and love us best and whom we can help in return – is a way to build trust in society and leads to human flourishing.
As the saying goes, we’re in this together.
But dependence on a cold federal bureaucracy saps the innovation of the giver as well as the initiative and self-worth of the recipient. For example, only a few of the 80 federal welfare programs ever required recipients to work. Private charities, however, have more flexibility to innovate and encourage self-reliance.
Government programs for children’s health care, welfare and prescription drugs already have crowded out private sector alternatives. But the effects will be mild in comparison to recent liberal policies that don’t properly consider religious liberty.
One major example is an early regulation under the new health care law. Known as the HHS mandate, the rule requires nearly every employer to cover “preventive services” in their health insurance plans, including abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization.
Employers do not qualify for the completely inadequate religious exemption unless they are churches or serve primarily individuals who share their beliefs. More than 100 groups and businesses have filed suit.
For what should be obvious reasons, many do not wish to quiz those they serve about religious beliefs. Catholic schools, for example, have educated the general public for generations. Such faith-based organizations would rather serve mankind generally as part of their calling than limit their work to fellow congregants. But the federal government is forcing them to either violate their consciences or pay exorbitant fines that could drive them out of serving others altogether.
Hard to believe? In one notorious case, Catholic Charities stopped arranging adoptions in Massachusetts when state officials said they must place children with homosexual adults. No public purpose justifies compelling Catholic Charities to arrange such adoptions in violation of conscience and religious liberty. Alternative adoption agencies exist. Should lawsuits against the HHS mandate fail, thousands of parish schools will face the impossible choice of violating conscience, paying huge fines or stopping operations altogether.
Also affected are countless Protestant, Jewish, Mormon and Muslim organizations.
As charities get pushed out by government, what will take their place? Last year’s presidential campaign provides a glimpse. Do you remember “The Life of Julia”? It was an online slideshow from the Obama camp that followed the fictional Julia as she grew into adulthood. Instead of her using the private sector, or turning to family (never mentioned) or charity, Julia’s every need was addressed by an Obama-inspired government program.
In his inauguration speech, President Obama acknowledged that “all society’s ills (cannot) be cured through government alone.” Yet his administration keeps expanding government and pushing aside the traditional institutions of civil society. It’s an unvirtuous cycle that increasingly leaves government alone in responding to human need.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Derrick Morgan is vice president for domestic and economic policy at The Heritage Foundation.