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William McGurn: On Religious Freedom, the HHS Mandate & Liberal Education

Note: William McGurn, vice president for News Corporation and author of the weekly “Main Street” column for The Wall Street Journal, recently visited campus and sat for the following interview. He will be the featured speaker at a reception for Thomas Aquinas College in New York City on April 10, 2012. For more information, please contact


Across the country there are many who regard the HHS mandate that requires Catholic employers to purchase contraceptive coverage for their employees as an assault. Can you explain what is at stake in terms of the founding principles of the United States, specifically as they relate to religious liberty?

What is distinctive about religious life in America from the beginning, as opposed to religious life in other countries, is the free exercise language of the Constitution. It is not just “you’re free to believe,” or just, “you’re free to gather together to worship,” but it is the guarantee of free exercise, which was a very radical proposition at the time it was offered.

To put it in high relief: I lived in Hong Kong for many years, during which I went into China often, and even 30 years ago, when I first went there, you would find churches open in China, Catholic churches where you could have Mass, and even with priests who were not members of the Patriotic Association. But there was no freedom to run schools, to catechize children, to run clinics, and so forth. That’s real freedom of exercise — to bring your gifts and talents to the public square. I think that’s why this mandate is such an assault. It’s saying that you can’t do that unless you stop being who you are.

Why should non-Catholics care about this issue?

What is distinctively American about this — and thus gives everyone a stake in this, not just Catholics — is that all of our freedoms are based on having a vibrant public square, on having a community that is prior to and stronger than the government. In the recent 9-0 Hosanna-Tabor decision, Justice Kagan referred to an earlier Supreme Court decision where the language was something like, “religious bodies are an important buffer” — buffer, that was the word she used — “between the institution and the government.”

I think that’s important for our freedom because if these groups are taken off the public square, then who takes their place? The government. That means it will be done more expensively, a lot less efficiently, and with a lot less humanity and a lot less love. So we have a stake in that. We also have a stake in just the humanity and decency of our society and in the good life, and not just in the material sense.

And that’s another comparison to China. China is getting very wealthy, and I’m glad it is; people have really suffered tremendously there. But they don’t yet have this civil society filled with voluntary organizations, especially church organizations, because Caesar is a jealous ruler and doesn’t want to give up the power.

Do you think the HHS mandate is part of a conscious effort to undermine these mediating institutions, or does it spring from an ideological animus against groups that oppose contraception?

I think it’s both. I want to be careful to note that I am not comparing the Obama Administration to communist China, although the comparison shows — in stark relief — where this kind of thing is headed philosophically. It has been an enterprise of modern American liberalism to drive these groups off the public square. Religious institutions are more ornery. You can get a big company to bow to the HHS a lot more easily than you can a little evangelical church. They’re pesky.

So yes, I think there’s a conscious effort to get these religious people off the public square, and I think that’s why the bishops are fighting. They see that Catholic adoption agencies get pushed out of the business because they won’t go along with same-sex marriage. They see that the Catholic network that was set up to help the victims of sexual trafficking, which has the Obama Administration’s highest rating, lost its contract to an entity with a lower rating because the network won’t refer for contraception and abortion. And now they see this.

I think what we’re seeing is the second wave in society. The first wave was in making it more permissive. The second wave, I think, really can be summed up as this: Every knee shall bend — but before the government and these single-payer mandates that squeeze out choice.

What has brought our political system to this point, and how do we get it back?

For too long we have equated government programs with Christian charity. Apart from the fact that I don’t think such programs work very well, we are called to individual works, and the more government does it the less inclined individuals are to do it. The Sermon on the Mount should not be confused with Obamacare.

The bishops, some of them, made a big mistake. They thought the only problem with Obamacare was the abortion language, which is a problem — language that opens the door to abortion — but this HHS mandate is just a sub-function of the larger function, which is a denial of liberty. For example, the government is going to decide what treatments you are going to get through what’s been called death panels, which have to exist because you have to ration services somehow. And it’s all based on the individual mandate, which forces people to buy something that they might not otherwise want to buy.

Now it’s forcing Catholic colleges to provide contraceptive services, something they find abhorrent. It’s all based on force. There has been a big confusion about that, but I’m fairly positive that we are going to win this, at least in the courts.

How much of the problem derives from a collective failure to give a proper defense of things that are within the Natural Law, or even a reasonable defense of the things we know by faith?

We’ve lost an understanding, and it’s not just Catholics. Most Americans, I think, could probably not tell you on what basis all men are created equal, because clearly we are not created equal in terms of education and so forth. Abraham Lincoln made that very clear in his famous statement that the slave is not his equal in social standing, in education, in cultivation; but in the right to eat the bread made by his own labor he is my equal and the equal of anyone else. I think for most Americans that’s an unintelligible statement today. But these are the things that force us back to examine our language, and we say, “Ah, this is what the founders meant. This is what these words meant.”

I blame Thomas Jefferson, somewhat unfairly. I say unfairly because the man who wrote the most famous sentence in human history — “all men are created equal” — used the words “self-evident truth” in that, so it’s kind of unfair to blame him for the sort of relativism that we have today. I say only somewhat unfairly, however, because he went for that horrible line, “the pursuit of happiness,” instead of property, which has been so misunderstood.

I think the line comes from a work by Lord Kames, one of the founders of the Scottish Enlightenment, where essentially if you worked it out, the pursuit of virtue is equal to the pursuit of happiness: We’re happy by pursuing virtue. That’s the Lord Kames definition of it. Today we have the Kim Kardashian definition, which is, “If it feels good, do it,” and “Who are you to say that your way is any better than mine?” So I sort of blame Jefferson for that phrase, which is just monstrously misunderstood today. The “pursuit of happiness” is a much more felicitous phrase — but it’s a real warning to writers not to be seduced by pretty language.

What do you make of the criticism that, although the bishops are saying the right things now, they have come to the fight too late?

Look, I think the bishops have made a lot of mistakes in the past. They largely sat by in the 1970s and 1980s when the Democratic Party took us down the route that we’re now on today — and they had a lot more influence then. They imagined themselves the party of John Kennedy, and in reality it was the party of Teddy Kennedy. In the same way Gov. Mario Cuomo used to pretend to agonize about abortion, but now we have his son, Andrew Cuomo, who clearly has no regard for Catholic teaching at all. So it is difficult, but the bishops are fighting, and I think they are more clear.

To give the bishops credit — and many people have failed to give them credit for this —from the start they have resolutely said they don’t want just an exemption to the HHS mandate. They have made it clear that they want the entire mandate chucked, because it is an assault on individual liberty, even with an exemption.

Why would it be a mistake for Catholics to settle for an exemption?

I don’t like the language of exemptions, because an exemption implies, “You have the right to discriminate,” and that’s not what it’s about. It’s about free exercise: You have the right to be who you are in the public square without apology.

No one forces you to work for a Catholic institution. I have yet to see the Thomas Aquinas police force that goes out and dragoons people and says, “You’re working in the Admissions Office, or you’re working as a groundskeeper.” I would be surprised if anyone who comes and works here doesn’t know what you’re about. They may not know fully until they’re here how seriously you take it, but no one makes them come here. I wouldn’t expect if I worked for some other group that it change its views to accommodate me. That’s just part of the graciousness of American life.

What kind of help do you expect to see from the evangelical churches and ministers in this fight?

We’re already seeing it. Someone mentioned to me last night that Mike Huckabee has said, “We’re all Catholics now.” The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing one evangelical college; and the Alliance Defense Fund, a non-denominational Christian group, has announced suits with a couple of evangelical colleges. There will be other suits. I’m sure there will be evangelical employers who have secular businesses, but who don’t want to support this. So in some sense, I expect that they’ll be stronger than we are.

What role can pro-life Democrats play?

If we’re going to have a Culture of Life, we can’t get it from just one party. I was really hopeful about pro-lifers in the Democratic Party; even though they were for a lot of things which I think are silly economically, I didn’t doubt their conviction. In the health care debate they were on the verge of winning. And how do I define winning? Within a party that has been pushing abortion, they would effectively say, “You have to pay attention to us because you need us to get what you want done.” Had they wrestled the health care bill to the ground, had they held their ground, Bart Stupak and the rest, they would have won.

Instead, what did they do? They said to Nancy Pelosi and to Mr. Obama: “You do not have to take us seriously; in the end we will crack.” That’s going to be a long time repairing, if it’s ever repaired. That’s a tragedy, because there was a chance there to build not a majority but a serious pro-life caucus in the Democratic Party. Some of the people who are pro-life Democrats really need our support. I think Dan Lapinksi in Chicago was a hero. Almost no one knows his name because he was a Democrat who held his ground and voted against that health care bill, and we ought to recognize our heroes.

It’s not good for America to break down to a pro-religion party and an anti-religion party. And the Republicans aren’t perfect, either. If they have all the pro-lifers, they can take it for granted. So it is just not healthy for the kind of American society that we aspire to, for the kind of Culture of Life that we want. Moreover, it shouldn’t come directly from politics. The politics should flow from the culture, and we need a lot more. It can’t be just done out of politics, and it can’t be just done by one party

If, as you say, what matters most is the culture, how can institutions such as Thomas Aquinas College play a role?

In this endeavor there are an awful lot of institutions that play a role, but it’s hard to think of a more important institution than the university, especially in the process of teaching people the one skill that’s really absent today, which is the ability to think critically. I think that’s what schools such as Thomas Aquinas do, and I think that’s the goal of a truly liberal education.

Some people accuse schools like Thomas Aquinas of walling themselves off from the modern world, but my view is that such an education gives you the critical faculties you need to take the measure of the modern world, to understand it better than it understands itself, and to leave it better than you found it. Otherwise I think you have what we have today: people are hostage to the modern world, to its assumptions, and are unable to get out of that box. They sense something is wrong. They sense that what they’re being told and what they see is not consonant with their experience or their nature. But only if you have a true education can you really rise above the moment to think about ultimate ends and appropriate means.

All institutions have a role to play. This is my first time at Thomas Aquinas College. I’ve known about the College for some time, and I know some of your graduates. You’ve been sowing the seeds for a long time. You have thousands of graduates out there who understand these issues and who are now in a position to fight these things, and that wouldn’t have been there unless someone with vision had started up this place and built it out of nothing.


Posted: March 1, 2012

William McGurn
Isaac Cross (’19) -- quote 2

“There’s a joy for life here you don’t get in most places, a sense of purpose, a sense of love and fellowship bound up in our common cause of seeking the truth.”

– Isaac Cross (’19)

Leominster, Massachusetts

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– Most Rev. Lionginas Virbalas

Metropolitan Archbishop of Kaunas, Lithuania