WASHINGTON -- President Obama's decision to lead with social issues in his re-election campaign -- immigration, gay marriage and contraception -- makes some political sense. His ideologically divisive performance in office has left him with no serious option but a base strategy. Cultural battles inspire the liberality of liberal donors. They may pump up turnout among target groups -- Latinos, college-educated whites and single women. They can goad opponents into angry overreaction. And social debates, coincidentally, are an alternative to discussing the state of the economy.
Obama's appeal to Hispanic Americans has little downside, exploiting a vulnerability Republicans have taken great pains to create. His evolution on gay rights corresponds to a swift evolution of public sentiments. It is his assault on the liberty of religious institutions -- forcing their complicity in the distribution of contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs -- that remains the most dangerous overreach of Obama's culture war.
This issue concerns not just the outcome of an election but the nature of liberalism itself. In a free society, which should have priority: pluralism or the advance of liberal values?
The advocates of pluralism believe that a political community should consist of many communities pursuing different ways of life. Some will be consistent with liberal, democratic conceptions of equality and choice. Others will be exclusive and traditional -- defined by sectarian beliefs and hierarchal authority. They may oppose contraception or forbid women from serving in some leadership positions. A pluralist view of freedom requires tolerance for some ways of life that other citizens find oppressive or unreasonable.
This tolerance, of course, is not unlimited. It covers the Old Order Amish. It would not cover the Old Order Aztecs engaged in ritual human sacrifice. Without imposing an ideal way of life, the state can rule out the clearest abuses of human rights. But in the pluralist view, the government should grant broad latitude to institutions, even illiberal institutions, in determining and transmitting their own views and practices.
But pluralism has critics. Some political philosophers assert that liberal values of equality and choice are foundational in a free society and should be promoted by government at every level -- all the way down to voluntary associations and families. In this view, the state has a responsibility to defend individual rights against every form of social oppression, public and private. Illiberal institutions should be encouraged, if not compelled, to grant their members greater choice and freedom.