The polarizing reactions to the 'Hobby Lobby' case are more frightening than the Cold War

Jul 1, 2014

I woke up this morning thinking about the election 38 years ago, when Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Michigan’s only president, Gerald Ford. That may sound a little bizarre, but before you call my psychiatrist, I was at the Ford Library just a few days ago.

And something that happened yesterday made me nostalgic for that long-ago time, for a very modern reason. I have intensely followed politics all my life, and remember that election as though it were yesterday.

The result was very close – the winner wasn’t known 'till almost four the next morning. There was sadness and some bitterness on the part of the losers the next day.

But the difference between then and now is this: Those supporting President Ford did not believe or say that Jimmy Carter was part of an evil leftist mission to destroy America. And Carter supporters did not think that Ford was on a mission to make this country a fascist theocracy. If anybody had talked like that they would have been regarded as a crackpot.

But that is how people commonly talk and think now, and this scares me, more than the Cold War ever did. You could see this yesterday in both the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the so-called “Hobby Lobby case” -- and the reaction to it.

The nation’s highest court ruled five to four that it was unconstitutional to require family-owned companies to pay for insurance companies for contraception.

This instantly polarized the nation. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is running for reelection and has become a darling of the religious right, said, “The nation’s highest court has upheld the religious liberties and freedoms of individuals across this land.”

And Mark Totten, who wants the Democratic nomination to run against him, said “Schuette’s crusade harms the very religious liberties we cherish.” He said that as a result of the Hobby Lobby decision, “thousands of women could experience unplanned pregnancies,” and predicted “an increase in the number of abortions.”

Incidentally, I think it is important to note that the Supreme Court did not say women employees couldn’t use contraception; just that their companies do not have to pay for insurance coverage that includes it. They will have to buy it themselves.

That’s not to say I agree with the high court’s decision; in fact I don’t. But here’s what bothers me more than the decision itself. It is that when I saw the bulletin and that it was a five to four decision, I knew without being told how every justice had voted.

What bothers me is that Bill Schuette did not praise the wisdom of these same justices when they found Obamacare itself was constitutional two years ago. What also bothers me is that one of the people praising this decision emailed me on election night two years ago to say that America was now “a Communist country ruled by a Muslim.”

And what bothers me most is how rigidly polarized we’re becoming. It is always risky to try and find historical parallels, but in some ways this state and nation seem to increasingly resemble Germany during the Weimar Republic.

Let’s hope we can avoid anything like a similar outcome.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.