"Truth is truth and does not change because of the Mob." So says a fundamentalist friend of mine, call her Lori, from my days long ago at Montgomery Catholic High, deep in the Heart of red state Dixie.
Lori and I picked up right where we left off back in high school - arguing with one another - when she linked to a letter on Facebook asking for support of the evangelical owners of the chain store Hobby Lobby in their dispute with the federal government over providing health coverage to their employees for family planning.
The Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling (by refusing to take the case) that the owners must abide by the provisions of Obamacare no matter how blasphemous they might think it to be. The defiant owners have threatened to disobey the law anyway.
Lori's view is a kind of theocratic capitalism - a fusion between property rights and religious "freedom" that demands that in all significant controversies in American law and policy the beliefs of the religiously devout who are wealthy must be accorded deference.
Therefore, if the owners of a business like Hobby Lobby are strongly opposed to birth control, who does the government think it is telling them they must provide health benefits their employees want (and their doctors prescribe) but which are offensive to the owner's religious sensibilities?
My view, as I have stated before, is that this controversy, like the one involving the Catholic bishops earlier, reflects the relentless campaign by traditionalist elements to both prioritize religion over all other forms of belief in our Republic and then use property ownership -- irrespective of how much taxpayer support those owners might get - as leverage to advance their patriarchal way of organizing society as a substitute for the modern and democratic society we have now.
My argument is that Notre Dame is fundamentally a "business" not a "church" and so its Catholic owners ought to be treated like business leaders, not ecclesiastical ones. At some level this is a dispute over theocracy versus democracy and the relative power and influence religious leaders will have over democratically-elected ones to shape our society.
If Hobby Lobby wants to do business in the United States, employ American workers, and earn profits by selling goods and services to Americans in an economy that is profitable thanks in large part to huge public investments in education, transportation, public safety, public order and defense, then it must play by the rules which apply to everyone else and not think it is somehow entitled to special consideration just because its opinions on right and wrong are "religious" in nature.
Redefining the conflict as one of the right of property owners to use their own property as they see fit does not alter the underlying question we face: Whether America will be a theocratic society or a democratic one.
In other contexts we do not allow property rights to trump civil or individual rights. We do not allow the owners of restaurants or theaters or other "public" accommodations to leverage their property ownership in order to impose their bigotries, prejudices and superstitions on the rest of us, no matter how firmly or sincerely held, by denying service to others based on race, ethnicity or religion -- even though there are some (like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul) who think we should.
The same principle applies with business owners Like Hobby Lobby's who think ownership entitles them to deny benefits to their employees available to everyone else simply because they have an objection based on their own particular religious tradition.
Lori is smart and articulate and so is able to give a good account of the view of America held by those whose politics are mostly an extension of their religious devotion. And what Lori says is that "the Founders accepted as fact that our rights were granted by God, not given to us by man, and thus a moral society based on God's laws would govern themselves accordingly."
It was not a perfect model, she said, but was "an exceptional experiment" that has so far produced "great prosperity and freedom" these past two hundred years.
Lori exhibits a rhetorical slight of hand common among theocrats who want to use politics in order to reorient America towards a more "Biblical worldview." The legerdemain appears when she refers to her liberal adversary on the other side not as "democracy," which implies competing beliefs and values like freedom and liberty, but as "the government" with all of the negative connotations about bigness and oppressiveness that term implies.
"Your way of thinking," says Lori, for example, "is that somehow the Government in its vast wisdom and power grants Hobby Lobby the right to do business in the United States, allowing them to make a profit."
But it's a mask that falls quickly when Lori lets down her guard and tells us what she really thinks, which is: "Our Constitution is based on a representative republic and we have slowly slipped into mob rule -- pure democracy -- with all of the propositions and direct votes of the people."
Lori says she does not think the Founders "set us up as a Theocracy" -- probably because "theocracy" sounds bad and polls poorly. Nevertheless, she quickly adds that the Founders "never expected God to be absent from our hearts and minds."
Our morality has to come from somewhere, says Lori, and that source she insists can't be "the whims of lawmakers or the court of public opinion." That is because, as she said at the beginning, "truth is truth and does not change because of the Mob."
I do not think the Founding Fathers wanted "to purge God from our hearts and minds" either. But neither do I think they wanted to trust their new republic and its politics to a religious sensibility that is authoritarian in nature because it believes "truth is truth."
The Founders were not godless atheists. But they knew their history and the sobering record of past republics which had committed mass suicide through factionalism and civil war.
And so the Founders were obsessed with how to construct a sustainable nation out of so many disparate parts so as to promote "domestic tranquility."
Formal checks and balances were important for making sure groups worked together to pass laws. But more important was a generalized public philosophy or ethos -- a tradition of civility and tolerance and liberal-mindedness - able to marginalize as much as possible absolutist doctrines like religion from dominating the national conversation and making politics itself - "the art of compromise" - impossible in any meaningful sense.
In controversies like Hobby Lobby and the one involving the Catholic bishops, we have gone from the First Amendment protecting the right to worship without state interference to the right of property owners to impose their religion on others if one has enough money to run a business or state-subsidized hospitals, schools, universities and social service charities.
It's not immediately evident to me how it is possible to organize a complex, diverse society on such a basis and sustain it -- at least not a modern democratic one.
And that is why I see conflicts like Hobby Lobby's as skirmishes in the larger cultural civil war being waged around the world between modern pluralist and popularly-governed societies and those traditionalist ones trying to restore to power all the same old ancient authorities of faith, wealth and privilege.
Daily Beast columnist Andrew Sullivan is on the same page when he says "the core dynamic in the world today is between fundamentalism and liberalism."
By liberalism, Sullivan means "acceptance of ideological and cultural diversity, a limited government, and a clear separation between church and state."
This is in contrast with "fundamentalism," by which Sullivan means "the attempt to enshrine certain scriptural or religious doctrines into literal reality for ever and to fuse them with politics and national identity."
Think "Christian Nation."
This does not mean that American liberals or "secularists" support the "obliteration of religion," says Sullivan, since liberal democracy has, in America, "helped religion flourish and evolve in constantly surprising ways."
But it does mean that the overriding public sensibility in America - the mindset and set of basic values and assumptions we use in our public politics - will be secular and modern in nature and not religious and traditionalist.
Women's rights and freedoms are the canary in the coalmine here since women's freedom are a common salient in these civil conflicts aggravated by traditionalists who see the government of a country as being essentially an extension of the government of the (largely) male dominated family with its separate and distinct gender roles.
This is why the "War on Women" took on particular intensity in the last election as the long-standing disagreement over abortion rights spilled over into issues long thought to be resolved, like access to contraception and even equal pay for equal work.
Each of those issues had their own logic, to be sure, but were also aspects of the larger struggle by some to make the foundations of the American Republic theocratic not democratic, reflecting the paternalistic beliefs held by traditionalist authorities that the people, and by extension the society as a whole, is not competent to make these kinds of moral and "value" decisions by themselves and of their own free will.
Lori would probably never say this since she considers herself to be a patriotic American. But at some level I think Lori doubts the legitimacy of the American democratic republic. "No longer can we trust politicians to take our wishes to Washington," she says. "America has been asleep for many years regarding politics and needs to wake up."
Lori would never take up arms against her own country or participate in the violent overthrow of the government. But her attitudes about democracy, legitimacy and political sovereignty -- and her alienation from the country and its government -- provide aid and comfort to those who would.
And it's that alienation that will make putting sensible restrictions on military-style assault rifles and other weapons of war and mass destruction a very heavy lift.