American soldiers engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that
our debates about the state of American culture are far from actual
"wars." Unlike other societies where division often leads to
violence, we inherited a framework for resolving our differences
according to shared principles and practices of constitutional
It is true that questions such as embryonic-stem-cell research
or the definition of marriage create tension with those fundamental
principles. But disregard and misuse of the very tools of
self-governance in recent decades have threatened our capacity to
address these differences.
All the more reason we should recommit ourselves to the
constitutional framework of shared principles and insist that
courts and legislatures respect them, assisting rather than
hindering us in navigating challenging issues.
The Founders thought moral reasoning was a prerequisite for a
self-governing people. In the Constitution, they designed a system
that presumes we are capable of deliberating together about what is
By appealing to shared concepts of the common good, we ensure
our exercise in democratic self-rule is a matter of reasoned
discourse rather than raw political muscle, the triumph of strong
Morality and reasoned discourse are essential to safeguarding
individual liberties and basic human rights -- and make tolerance
possible. Refusal to rely on reasoned discourse creates both ugly
spectacle and dangerous precedent.
Consider the backlash last year against supporters of
Proposition 8, California's constitutional amendment that defined
marriage as existing only between a man and a woman. Voters who
displayed the "Yes on 8" slogan had their cars keyed, bumper
stickers ripped off, yard signs stolen and other property
Donors who gave as little as $100 received vulgar e-mails and
phone calls; their employers or businesses were targeted for
picketing and boycotts. Churches were vandalized. Mormon temples
got packages of suspicious white powder in the mail. The mayor of
Fresno received a death threat.
Our ability to reason together on the most fundamental issues
also is shortchanged when courts or remote levels of government
snatch decision-making from our hands. Judicial activism
particularly heightens tension by suggesting decisions are out of
Proposition 8, for example, responded to a California Supreme
Court ruling that redefinedmarriage despite the fact that a
significant majority of state voters in 2000 spoke in favor of
traditionalmarriage by approving Proposition 22, a ballot measure
protectingmarriage in statute.
Most famously, the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade made
abortion-on-demand the law of the land.
Similarly, legislative overreach has damaged the spirit of
deliberation handed down by the Founders. State and federal
governments, far removed from local complexities, have sought to
impose uniformity where it not only can't be achieved but shouldn't
be our goal. Caught in the gears of such systems, too many aspects
of cultural policy became winner-take-all contests.
Take education and health policy. Liberals' efforts to achieve
one-size-fits-all uniformity often make these all-or-nothing
confrontations and greatly exacerbate cultural tension.
Debates over cultural values tend to center on what we will
teach our children. Parents' rights and responsibility to oversee
the education and upbringing of their children get lip service, all
right, but not serious support in policy. Too often, parents are
relegated to helping with peripherals like bulletin boards and bake
sales. Meanwhile, family religious beliefs and values meet
antagonism in the classroom and curriculum.
Parental choice in education offers an exit strategy. It could
defuse controversies that create stalemates on state school boards
-- from how to teach about the origins of the universe to standards
of sexual behavior today -- by allowing families to choose schools
that reflect their values. Choice would not only recognize parents'
fundamental authority but also affirm that decisions in these
sensitive areas are best left to their discretion.
Health care is even more of a cultural minefield. There may be
no more sensitive realm of policy, since it encompasses the most
intimate aspects of life from conception to death. The prospect of
a government-run health plan and federal regulation of private
plans has escalated the tension.
Proposals under consideration in Congress likely would force
health plans to cover abortion -- and taxpayers to finance it:
This, on the heels of a Gallup poll in May finding that 51 percent
of Americans consider themselves pro-life and a Zogby poll in
November finding that 71 percent object to tax-funded abortions or
employer-sponsored insurance that covers abortions.
As biomedical advances push us into ever-more murky ethical
depths in everything from prenatal concerns to end-of-life
decisions, President Obama's health care agenda would hand over the
moral compass to anonymous bureaucrats to decide what questionable
benefits the government plan will cover.
Families need to be able to vote with their feet when it comes
to abortion and other personal or sensitive medical issues. True
reform should empower Americans to choose affordable, quality
health plans consistent with their ethical and religious
convictions. That is more likely to be achieved by pursuing reform
in the decentralized environment of the states, where the goal
should be to maximize choice so families can find trustworthy plans
that protect individual rights of conscience.
These fundamental issues will not fade away. Indeed, they call
for policymakers who will restore commitment to the constitutional
principles and practices that will help us navigate the most
turbulent challenges. The future of our politics, and of the
American republic itself, depends on such a renewal.
Jennifer A. Marshall oversees the DeVos Center
for Religion and Civil Society as director of domestic policy
studies at the Heritage Foundation.