Indivisible co-author Jay W. Richards on what is uniting Christians, dividing Americans

Jay W. Richards is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a contributing editor at The American magazine and the Enterprise Blog at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also the co-author of Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family and Freedom Before It’s Too Late. He spoke with Catholic World Report recently about some current events relating to themes and ideas addressed in that book, including freedom, the role of government, progressivism, and Church-state relations.

Catholic World Report: Let’s imagine George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have time traveled to our current day. How might you explain to them how and why the United States has reached a point where the federal government is poised to force businesses and institutions, including Christian schools and organizations, to fund contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs?

Richards: I suspect Washington and certainly Jefferson would doubt that the political experiment they birthed was still in operation. But if I had only a few minutes to explain what has happened, I would tell them that a political philosophy called “progressivism” became dominant in influential sectors of our society. This philosophy disdained the constitutional idea—that the state should be limited in power and scope. The separation of powers that the Founders established in the Constitution, along with a residual spirit of Constitutionalism among the people, has slowed the march of progressive philosophy. But they have failed to stop it, in part, because all three branches of government have been occupied by individuals who shared this philosophy.

A related philosophy of secularism has overrun the “theistic consensus” of the Founders. In the last century, influential elites came to doubt that we human beings are “endowed by our Creator” with certain intrinsic rights. As a result, our laws now fail to recognize those rights for some classes of human beings. And rather than avoiding laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion, Congress is now trying to compel religious citizens to act in ways that violate their deepest moral beliefs. 

When it comes to the exercise of religion, politically we have gone from freedom, to indifference, to outright hostility.

Catholic World Report:  How far, in your estimation, has our country departed from the original vision of the founding fathers as far as the power and scope of the federal government is concerned?

Richards: I believe the “commanding heights” of our culture have for the most part abandoned the traditional American ideal of limited and constitutional government. I’m certain the Founders would be shocked by the growth of government in all sectors. For more than 100 years after the founding of our country, the federal government cost the average American about $20 a year (in today’s dollars). Now, it costs each of us more than $10,000 per year on average. And most of that growth has happened in the last half century.

The federal government is now involved in almost everything. It more or less controls the mortgage market, retirement, education, and health care. It tries to cure poverty, both here and abroad (and often makes matters worse). It fixes the price that an employer must pay for labor. It subsidizes some private businesses, and punishes a host of others. It buys and sells private companies. It funds and directs scientific research, museums, art, public television and radio, college student grants and loans, choices of light bulbs, and billions of dollars in “aid” to foreign governments. One could defend some of these activities. But let’s not fool ourselves: Such omnipresent government is not what the Founders had in mind.

Catholic World Report: What signs of hope do you see when it comes to fighting the HHS mandate? 

Richards: Despite what I have said above, I am very hopeful that we can win the fight against the HHS mandate. It’s possible the Supreme Court could reject some or all of the Act of which it is a part. But leaving that aside, I believe we are seeing a sleeping giant awake. I don’t recall ever seeing such unity among American bishops and among Catholics and other Christians. 

When the HHS mandate was announced, many in the media said that opposition to the HHS mandate was just Catholic opposition to artificial contraception. The purpose of this strategy, of course, was to separate Catholics and evangelicals. It failed miserably. Scores of evangelical leaders and millions of evangelicals have joined this fight. We are witnessing a real “John 17” moment. Christians may be divided doctrinally and institutionally, but the HHS mandate has had the inspiring effect of bringing together faithful Christians of diverse traditions. 

Catholic World Report:  One often hears and reads the lament that our country is “too polarized and divided” and needs to “get past partisan differences”? Is that legitimate complaint? Or do the divides indicate real and substantially different perspectives that cannot be reconciled?

Richards: We should do our best to avoid vitriol and stick to rational arguments. But partisanship is hardly unique to our day. If you doubt that, read up on the election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson!

Too often, when people decry partisanship, they are either not thinking very carefully or really mean that we should quit arguing and do what they say.

The truth is, many of today’s political differences reflect real, underlying disagreements – not only about policies, but about fundamental principles. We debate subjects such as the definition of marriage, which would never have occurred to previous generations. The worst way to deal with those differences is to pretend they don’t exist. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe in reason and evidence, and I think the best way to resolve our differences politically is to have a fair and honest debate in full public view.

Catholic World Report:  What can ordinary citizens do to both preserve authentic freedom and restore basic values and virtues?

Richards: Before anything, we should pray and pursue holiness. Our culture is far more than our politics. If individuals and communities are transformed by the Holy Spirit, that will have political effects. 

At the same time, the current assault on religious freedom should compel us to political action. So we should:

Get informed. Learn the fundamental principles on which good policies are based. (See here for more details.) Spend time thinking about how to translate these principles into policy.

Stand together with fellow believers and lovers of liberty, and stand firm. If millions of us stand together in unity and refuse to comply with the mandate, it will fail. But let’s remember the key strategy of the opposition: To divide us and get us arguing amongst ourselves. We must not fall for this.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Not to stand is to stand. Not to speak is to speak.” If we stand here and now, we can still turn the tide.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.