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.
The task becomes easier as the role of government expands. The passage of Obamacare allowed the writing of regulations that impose a liberal value (sexual autonomy through cost-free contraception) on illiberal (Catholic) institutions. The Department of Health and Human Services prioritized the expansion of progressive rights over the claims of pluralism.
The establishment of the liberal view of autonomy as the single, publicly favored way of life is inherently aggressive. Why not use government power to undermine the resistance of private institutions to reproductive rights by giving funding only to charitable organizations that refer for abortions? The Obama administration already imposed this requirement on a recent grant dealing with human trafficking. So why not take a similar approach on gay rights or gender equality, denying public benefits to organizations with illiberal views? It is an apparently endless public mission.
It is also a recipe for endless culture war. Institutions targeted by government as backward will naturally resent it, and the members of those groups will feel alienated from a common public enterprise.
But there are a number of arguments for genuine pluralism beyond social peace. The habits of good citizens -- attributes such as self-control, cooperation and respect for the law -- don't emerge spontaneously. They are cultivated in families and religious congregations. The health of liberal political institutions is strengthened by the success of traditional institutions, which often teach values that prepare individuals for the responsible exercise of freedom.
At the same time, strong civic institutions act as a check on government. This is the most basic of American beliefs -- that freedom is best preserved by the broad distribution of power, resources and authority. Pluralism is a brake on oppressive majorities and on public officials over-impressed by their own virtue.
So: a strong civil society prepares people for participation in liberal, democratic institutions while limiting the pretensions and ambitions of those institutions. This is the genius of pluralism, and the best hope for lasting peace in the culture wars: a single nation with room for deep disagreements.