“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”
The Father of our Country, whose birthday we just celebrated, penned those words because he saw a clear connection between the nation’s freedom and the virtue of its individual citizens.
I could fill the entire column with similar quotations from all the Founding Fathers, from conservative and pious John Adams to liberal and secular Thomas Jefferson.
Whatever their private religious views, the men who put their lives, fortunes and sacred honor at stake to found the freest nation in history believed to a man that liberty would not last long in a people without a robust sense of conscience.
Government is necessary, but it isn’t benign. It operates by coercion (the powers to tax and to punish) and has an inherent tendency to try to accrue more power to itself.
It was to restrain the evil effects of that propensity that our forefathers split the three functions of government into separate bodies and set up a series of checks and balances to prevent the concentration of power.
Just to make sure no one missed the point, they passed the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, guaranteeing the free exercise of religion among many other rights, limiting the police power of the state, and guaranteeing all powers not enumerated in the Constitution to the states.
They counted religion as liberty’s natural ally, since a serious commitment to pleasing God makes people not only law abiding, but also concerned for their fellow citizens, and therefore committed to the common good, rather than mere self-interest.
Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly makes the same point. Religion does not threaten secular government, it elevates and purifies it, because it helps us think beyond our passions and private interests.
In Martin Luther King, Jr., we have a recent example of how a conscience forged in Church can advance freedom and justice for all citizens.
No wise or just government should deliberately force citizens to choose between obeying God and obeying the law because liberty is always the ultimate loser.
If the citizens choose to obey God, they learn contempt for the law. Thus is sown cynicism, and the petty corruption of banana republics, where no one feels obedience to the law as a moral obligation, but merely a series of hoops to jump.
If on the other hand they submit their consciences to the state, they gradually become sheep, docile to state power and passive even in the face of manifest evil.
The right to free exercise of religion is not absolute. Sometimes private rights must give way to a manifest and overwhelming public good.
Quakers and other pacifists are taxed to support the military, for example, because the main purpose of a federal government is national defense, and there is no practical way to maintain an army if anyone can claim to be a pacifist to evade paying the tax.
The Supreme Court ruled that pacifists are not exempt from supporting the military with their taxes, yet the government still goes out of its way to accommodate conscientious objectors to actual war. It is understood that conscience is precious.
Where there is no manifest and overwhelming public good involved, the state must yield to the rights of conscience so as not to create a dangerous wedge between its people and respect for law.
In the case of the Obama administration’s abortion drug and sterilization mandate, no necessary public good has been asserted. There is no population crisis in the US, and this is not China, where the state controls family size.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the sole purpose of the mandate is to show all the little people who stand against the Planned Parenthood culture who is boss.
If the nation yields on this point and the HHS rule is perpetuated, it is not difficult to see that a year or two from now we will be protesting an abortion mandate, but to no avail, as our souls will already have been sold.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.