by Michael Schuttloffel
The idea of rugged individualism has long been a central feature of the American myth.
When contemplating the making of our republic, one cannot help but conjure the imagery of the self-made, self-sufficient man, the yeoman farmer glorying in his freedom, living his life by the sweat of his brow, or the pioneer pushing west for even greater opportunity.
Yet to define the American tradition as purely individualist would be to overlook its strong communitarian dimension. America has long been blessed with a rich mosaic of voluntary associations that exist in the space between the citizen and the state: churches, schools, political organizations, volunteer groups like the Knights of Columbus, etc. Often referred to as “civil society,” they represent the many different ways that Americans come together for group action freely, without coercion.
In the 1830s, the French philosopher and historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans “are forever forming associations. There are… a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to . . . found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. In any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government . . . in the United States you are sure to find an association.”
Today, it is readily apparent that the strong individualist gene in our national character is in no danger of going dormant, though that individualism is undoubtedly assuming new forms. However, our sense of the importance of local mediating institutions for the common good is quietly slipping away.
Understood in this context, the HHS contraceptive mandate is doubly ominous. In addition to forcing Catholics into complicity with health insurance that violates their consciences, the mandate is a case study in leviathan state disdain
for the prerogatives of civil society. Catholic hospitals, charities, and schools must either submit themselves to government direction and manage their ministries as the federal bureaucracy says they must, or they will be punished.
The HHS mandate has profound implications not only for the Catholic conscience, but for the American way of life. The familial-voluntary-communal institutions which mediate between the individual and the state are being pulled apart by both: centralizing government power from above, and the breakdown of the family (and other cultural pathologies antithetical to community life) from below.
Columnist Ross Douthat sees in the HHS mandate “an intimation of a darker American future, in which our voluntary communities wither away and government becomes the only word we have for the things we do together.” Catholics concerned for their country have no shortage of tasks in the coming years. One will be a restoration of appreciation for the ties that truly bind.