This year marks the 35th anniversary of a small but extremely influential book: To Empower People, by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus. If you’ve ever heard the term “mediating institutions,” this is the book that made it (more) popular.
In their 45-page treatise, Berger and Neuhaus argue that a healthy nation relies on local institutions—like faith-based ministries and voluntary associations—to mediate between individual citizens and big government. When public policies are hostile to such institutions, the very nature of democracy is threatened.
Sadly, the reminder To Empower People issued in the mid-1970s is being recklessly ignored today by Obamacare and the Health and Human Services (HHS) anti-conscience mandate.
Berger and Neuhaus explain that civil society institutions play a key role in caring for citizens in need. These “people-sized institutions” understand social problems in up close and personal ways. Driven by deep convictions and compassion, such organizations can provide loving forms of assistance and care that government programs simply cannot offer, and they often do so for less money.
To Empower People also makes a case for why healthy civil society institutions are essential for democracy: They generate and maintain the operative values of American life. In a free society, mediating structures stand between citizens and the large bureaucratic structures of the state, transferring meaning and value to the less personal realm of government. Without these mediating structures, “values become another function of the megastructures, notably of the state, and this is a hallmark of totalitarianism.”
In light of this, the authors issue two programmatic recommendations: First, public policy should at least “cease and desist from damaging mediating structures.” Second, public policy should protect and, where possible without co-opting them, empower mediating institutions in their efforts to promote the common good.
The HHS anti-conscience mandate fails both of these propositions. By forcing groups to offer health plans that cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization, the mandate damages many mediating structures by stripping them of their ability to live according to their convictions. It gives unprecedented power to the federal government to dictate how social institutions must behave. It basically attempts to remake civil society in the government’s own image, leaving no room for institutions guided by moral convictions that differ from those of the President.
And if civil society organizations decide that they must stop offering health coverage to uphold their moral convictions, Obamacare slaps them with a heavy fine. There is no way out.
A very narrow religious exemption from the mandate protects only houses of worship but not organizations that serve people of other faiths. In 1977, Berger and Neuhaus put their finger on the ideology behind this: When liberals defend the religious freedom of individuals but not institutions, “the liberty to be defended is always that of privatized religion.…liberals are typically hostile to the claim that institutional religion might have public rights and public functions.”
In short, Obamacare reveals a social philosophy at odds with the one articulated in To Empower People. The Obama Administration assumes that the state should take responsibility for people’s health care decisions, even at the expense of vital mediating institutions. By shifting moral decision making from civil society to unaccountable government bureaucracies, Obamacare strikes at the very underpinnings of self-government.
To protect mediating institutions, safeguard religious liberty, and restore power to people, Obamacare needs to go.
Note: To see Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus reflect on the influence of their book 30 years later, see the archived footage of a Heritage event in 2007.