Saturday, March 3, 2012

Freedom of Conscience, Saturday, March 3, 2012

 It’s the liberal argument, made especially vehemently in the controversy over the HHS mandate, that religious belief should not be introduced into public life.  I’ve long felt, since I was in college and even somewhat before, that such thinking is nonsense.  Like it or not, religious feeling, for or against, is part of being human and, as humans we’re incapable of cutting ourselves up, as it were.  We can’t separate ourselves into separate compartments that allow us to act one way while playing one role, and another way in another role.  As I heard a Presbyterian minister say one time, “God isn’t just God on Sunday.” 

Something forgotten in such debates today is that one of the central philosophical notions of the Founders is that the rights enjoyed by every citizen belong to that citizen as a gift of God, not as a concession from any government or king.  Nathaniel Peters makes this case in a column on the First Things web site:

Furthermore, even before the twentieth century, religious liberty and talk about the rights of conscience had formally entered into the Catholic tradition. This development grew over time, from the scholastics to John Henry Newman and John Courtney Murray, but it flowered in the Second Vatican Council’s declaration “Dignitatis Humanae.” There, in light of Catholic tradition, the Council Fathers made Catholic arguments on Catholic grounds that religious freedom truly is a Catholic and Christian thing. Some have objected to this development—most notably the schismatic Society of St. Pius X—but most have come to see that the freedom to follow the dictates of one’s conscience in matters of religion is not an unfortunate concession to the modern age but a sound development of Christian truth. Today, as George Weigel recently wrote, paraphrasing Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, “the overwhelming majority of Christians believe that it is God’s will that they be tolerant of others who have different notions of God’s will. Religious tolerance, for Christians, is not a mere pragmatic accommodation to the fact of religious difference; it is a virtue, a moral good.”

Furthermore, protecting the freedom of conscience is not simply a concession to the privatizing tendencies of liberalism. Arguing for religious liberty need not entail denuding the public square. Religious liberty strives to protect a minimum standard: The government cannot coerce a person to perform an action that his conscience deems wrong on religious grounds. It shields the private exercise of religion not to keep the exercise of religion private, but rather as a necessary prerequisite for making it public. Moreover, claiming opposition to something on the grounds of private religious conscience need not inhibit separate public arguments against that thing.

Liberals, I might add, have not hesitated to make this argument when it suited their own purposes.  Peters writes:
For example, consider a young pacifist Quaker during the Vietnam War. The Quaker’s religious convictions prevent him from fighting in the Vietnam War. They also make him believe that all wars, not just the Vietnam War, are wrong, and that part of his duty as a Christian and a citizen is to make public arguments that this is the case. If the government seeks to ignore his conscientious objection and draft him, the Quaker can claim that the government should not violate his conscience and make him fight in the War. But in making that argument, he does not cede the separate argument that Vietnam is an unjust war—or that all wars are unjust—and he does not lose the ability to make such arguments publicly. Indeed, claiming the right not to fight in the War is his first step toward further public advocacy, on public grounds, that the War is unjust and should not be fought at all.

As Americans, we have a right to voice our deepest held beliefs publically and not to be forced to do something deeply repugnant to us morally.  The issues raised by the HHS mandate are serious philosophical and constitutional issues that affect our liberty as Americans.  I hope it won’t be obscured through the deliberate recasting, and misdirecting this in terms of separation of church and state, by which they mean something never written into the Constitution. It isn't a matter of one group, Catholics, trying to force their beliefs on the rest of the country, it's Catholic's trying to prevent the beliefs of others being forced on themselves.  It's critcal to understand the difference.

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