Green Room

Why Rick Santorum doesn’t owe us a “contraception speech”

posted at 5:40 pm on February 15, 2012 by

… but could do a lot of good with a “nature of government” speech

Time has called out Rick Santorum for “wanting to ‘fight the dangers of contraception’.”  Matt Lewis at The Daily Caller sees electoral danger for Santorum in his insistence on discussing social issues and registering committed opinions on them, rather than parrying such questions with a kind of unifying boilerplate.

Lewis isn’t necessarily wrong on the point about electability.  But I see much more danger for America’s future in the fact that so many Americans are now apparently unable to make important distinctions about the operation and functions of government.

Consider the method by which Michael Scherer presents the video of Santorum’s interview with the evangelical blog Caffeinated Thoughts in October 2011.  Scherer includes in his article a transcript of the comments he wants to discuss, and helpfully tells readers to start watching the video at the 17:55 mark.

I decided to watch from the beginning (in spite of the awful audio quality).  Out of context, Santorum’s remarks sound like he might have a plan to “fight contraception” the way Democrats always want to fight something: that is, outlaw it, impose fees and penalties on it, sue the bejeebers out of it in court, sic the IRS and all the other federal agencies and commissions on it, demonize it in the media, teach children in the public schools that it is associated with hate, racism, violence, and fascism, and make movies in which the left’s point of view about it is validated by George Clooney.

But in context, it turns out that Santorum has no plan to do anything with federal law other than ensure that ObamaCare is repealed and that federal money is not used for contraception or abortion.  (Federal money is currently used to fund both.)  Santorum was speaking in October in the Caffeinated Thoughts video, before the contretemps over the ObamaCare insurance mandate for contraceptive services; otherwise, he would presumably have referred to that as well.

To appreciate the context in which his remarks were made, it is necessary to start no later than the 10:00 hack.  The overall discussion is about various social issues (e.g., fatherlessness), and the theme Santorum emphasizes is that a president can shape a national debate on these topics, which profoundly affect the social health of our communities.  He repeats the word “debate” quite a few times.  His examples of positive intervention in such issues come from the local level and involve community groups and local governments.

He says explicitly in the 16:00-17:30 timeframe that laws in Congress are just a small part of what he’s talking about, and his examples of working through federal law – there are only two – are ensuring that no federal funds are going to abortion, and repealing ObamaCare.   He is also explicit, if fleeting, about the federal government not being the right level at which to actually deal with social issues by adopting government policies.

Santorum isn’t coming after your contraception.  He does consider it an issue that affects the health of society, and his hope is to foster a debate on that and other social topics, a rhetorical power he ascribes – along with millions of other observant Americans – to the president.

Many readers will think it’s misguided of Santorum to want to use the bully pulpit of the Oval Office to spark a national discussion on contraception.  But let’s make the minimal effort required to at least understand what Santorum’s position actually is, and oppose it for what it is, instead of taking cherry-picked soundbites from him and reading into them the themes of governmentalism popularized by the left over the last century. The left doesn’t own the idea of “government” and what it’s supposed to do to and for us.

Regarding contraception itself, as it happens, I hold the fairly typical Protestant view that our virtue does not depend on things like contraception being proscribed to us, and that while the unborn child is a human being, his or her human status before conception falls in the category of what Paul calls “disputable matters” (see Romans 14).  Protestants frame the argument about contraception a bit differently from Catholics, although I have sympathy for the Catholic Church’s viewpoint on the larger issue of sex, procreation, and human life.

Ultimately, I don’t know how much social good a national debate on contraception would do, if it were promoted by the president.  I view the federal government, including the presidency, as too compromised and suspect an entity to honestly broker such a debate under current conditions.  (I am very happy for the churches to foster the debate, and indeed, to see the Catholics sticking to their guns.)

But what I do believe is that the government – and the federal government in particular – should have no policy on ensuring the distribution of contraception.  Santorum is right that the federal government should neither fund contraception nor subsidize its advocates’ prowling the land in various guises, encouraging young women to resort to it.  It should not be the policy of the state to subsidize or promote the avoidance of pregnancy, any more than it should be the policy of the state to prohibit contraception.  A government that interests itself in this matter is too big.  It needs to be slapped down hard.

The more things government subsidizes – and therefore promotes – the more likely it is that the actions of government will become topics of religious and moral dispute.  Americans can handle this one of two ways.  We can take the bait every time, getting into knock-down-drag-out fights over the issues as if the only solution is for one side to end up with the weight of government and the taxpayers’ money behind it.

Or we can take the issues out of government’s purview, and let reality, nature, and people’s consciences decide.  We can also reduce the weight of government, so that the cost when government decides to endorse a position – an act that should be rare, and exceedingly so in the case of the federal government – is not unacceptable to those who may lose the argument.  “Tolerance” does not mean “obligation to subsidize,” for example, nor does “unwillingness to endorse” mean “intolerance”; these creeping inversions only make sense to the narrow mind in the context of an all-encompassing government – a context that is unnecessary and avoidable.

I would like to hear from Rick Santorum what his philosophy of government is.  I don’t disagree that the executive has a hortatory function, although I would define the scope of it pretty narrowly.  The problem with wanting to engage the people from the Oval Office on the topic of contraception is that there is so much water under the bridge now:  the mode in which government approaches social issues has been established as overweening “big-governmentism,” on the model exemplified by FDR, Lyndon Johnson’s social legislation, decades of judicial activism, and the geometrically expanding activism of the executive agencies created by both parties since 1952.

What we chiefly need is to disestablish that very convention.  It distorts, often decisively, all our public dialogue on contentious topics.  Can Rick Santorum articulate a philosophy of government that defies this model, to which so many Republicans and conservatives are justly opposed?  Does he want to?

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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Just knocked another one out of the park!

halfbaked on February 15, 2012 at 6:22 PM

Ok, what about voting to raise the debt ceiling five times? What about Medicare Part-D? No Child Left Behind?

Santorum is a big government stooge.

rndmusrnm on February 15, 2012 at 7:02 PM

This post has been promoted to HotAir.com.

Comments have been closed on this post but the discussion continues here.

Allahpundit on February 16, 2012 at 12:42 AM

Yes, yes, Santorum has discussed his votes and apologized for his mistakes, but that is not good enough for many. Even if Santorum has high marks for being fiscally conservative, especially compared to his fellow Republicans in the Senate.

mdmusmm, just go stick your fingers in your ears and yell at the top of your lungs. It is the best way to understand the man.

PuritanD71 on February 15, 2012 at 9:32 PM