During the dusty, hot June of 1858, Abraham Lincoln addressed the Illinois Republican convention as their candidate for the U.S. Senate.
In a speech widely viewed by his colleagues as true but so politically incorrect as to be embarrassing, Lincoln observed that America could not remain forever half slave and half free.
Lincoln feared that the newly adopted Kansas-Nebraska act permitting slavery in the territories meant Americans were abandoning the proposition that all men and women were created equal, endowed with inalienable rights. Tolerance of slavery meant they were gradually replacing that principle with “might makes right.”
The Constitution had permitted slavery in a limited way, but designed it to die out by ending the slave trade and confining slavery to the states where it already existed.
It was Lincoln’s view that at any given time a people is animated by one major premise or presupposition. So long as slavery was on the wane, America was on the path to embody the founding principle of the equal rights of man more perfectly as time progressed.
By expanding slavery into the territories, she was reversing course and rejecting that principle.
Lincoln didn’t expect America to dissolve over it; but he did expect one or the other of the conflicting views of man to win.
“I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
Either slavery would be put back on the path to extinction, or the “right” to it would expand to every state.
It was impossible not to think of Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech when Pope Benedict recently told American bishops, “At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing.”
In America, that consensus was expressed in our founding documents, particularly the Declaration’s claim that all men and women are endowed with certain inalienable rights by nature. Natural and inalienable: inherent to being a human being, not granted by government.
Among those inalienable rights was the pursuit of happiness, or “blessedness,” as the Founders would have understood the word. In other words, the right of the citizen to have and exercise faith, and to pursue the Good as he or she understands it, is the very reason our nation was founded, and protecting the individual conscience from trampling by the majority is the rationale behind the structure of the Constitution.
The Founding Fathers, looking to Europe’s endless sectarian religious wars, asked themselves how they could forge a nation free of such disputes.
They judged it best not to establish an official religion at the federal level -- not because religion was not important, but on the contrary because it was so important, a man’s conscience could not be coerced in such matters.
Thus it was that George Washington, writing to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, proudly noted that in America, Jews need not fear for their rights, because here they are not merely “tolerated,” but accepted on an equal footing with everyone else.
“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
The most disturbing aspect of the debate our nation’s been having over the HHS abortion drug mandate has been the degree to which people now speak as if religious people had no rights anyone was bound to respect and the conscience a nuisance.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi recently lamented that Catholics have “that conscience thing.”
“Religious people should just suck it up,” I heard a caller to a radio show opine.
A homily making the rounds begs the President to “let us be Catholic!”
We don’t need anyone’s permission to be Catholic, and, like the Jews of Washington’s time, we live and act by right, not by suffrage, even if we are the minority.
The measure of American liberty is not how progressive we are about sex, but how committed we are to protecting the rights of the minority.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.