Michael Gerson

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.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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