Framing issues as false, bilateral choices is a rhetorical standby that is reaching new lows in today’s superheated and intellectually dishonest political conversation.
The Obama administration’s efforts to protect women’s health by mandating contraceptive coverage for those who desire it has set off the latest round of false framing. As a result, an issue that could and should be resolved through intelligent compromise seems likely to divert attention from the many other problems that should be debated between now and the November election.
The administration strangely underestimated the blowback from the Catholic Church when it required religion-backed institutions such as hospitals and schools to offer contraceptive coverage in their employees’ health insurance. Quickly and wisely, it modified the rule so that insurers would provide that coverage free rather than the religion-affiliated institutions paying for it.
Since that change, the false choices have rained down.
“This is not a women’s rights issue,” thundered Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., “it is a religious-liberty issue.”
No, that’s a false framing. It’s both.
“If … access for all women to preventive health care is a compelling interest,” declared Robert Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “it can trump religious freedom.”
No, that’s another false framing. A compelling interest cannot make religious freedom irrelevant or inoperative.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who opened this session of Congress declaring that his objective was to ensure that Barack Obama failed, was in his usual take-no-prisoner mode, saying the issue “will not go away until the administration backs down” – another false choice.
The U.S. Conference of Bishops is blissfully unburdened by choices, false or otherwise, since it deals in facile absolutes such as that all contraception is immoral and thus must be denied to all women in all circumstances. “Pregnancy is not a disease,” the bishops truthfully declare, but ignore the contending truth that it is very much a health issue.
Clashes of competing rights, all guaranteed equally by the Constitution, are the driving dynamic of our system. They are what makes democracy difficult to do right, but they are also what makes it worth doing. The idea of one right “trumping” another has no viable place in the dynamic.
For instance, the Catholic Church has the right to preach that contraception is immoral, but it does not have the right to laws requiring that its members or employees adhere to those preachments. Religious liberty includes not only the right to preach but also the right to disagree with or ignore religious teachings without legal penalty.
The most flagrant false choice being tossed around is that President Obama has somehow “declared war on religion” and thus any proposal of his touching on any religious matter or institution must not only be rejected but also condemned.
Disagreements involving competing rights can only be resolved inside the boundaries of the contrasting absolutes. This disagreement can be resolved, but doing so will require first framing it in terms of “and-also” rather than “either-or.” That is, illuminate steps that will protect the moral ground and also provide the health care. They are out there, available to people who are willing to forgo the deceptive attractions of easy absolutism and try the harder work of democracy.
But then we’ve known that since 1776 or so. What’s different these days?