LEE >> In crafting the U.S. Constitution, the Founders provided a bedrock basis for religious liberty as an inviolate individual right, precisely so that no government official or apparatus could ever infringe on it, granted as each individual's birthright, one that would forever undergird our larger national life.
George Washington expressed the idea in his farewell address: "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."
Washington's words were prescient. Consider the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns with a simple mission: to take care of impoverished elderly people. The Little Sisters have a Christian motivation to do this, and within it, they adhere to specific religious principles about the sanctity of life, including carefully reasoned objections to certain methods of birth control.
While implementing the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) told the Little Sisters of the Poor that they had to submit to the birth control mandates of the new law, even though to do so would violate their convictions and conscience. It was as if HHS said to the Sisters, for whom religious faith is at the center of everything, "Who needs God? We'll show you the way it's done."
Although the Obama administration agreed to an accommodation the Little Sisters requested, it came later, when the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed HHS. Without that intervention, the trampling of the Little Sisters' religious convictions would have moved forward under an executive branch imposing its will and thereby suppressing the traditional religious principles of its citizens, in particular, the Little Sisters.
On the campaign trail last year, Hillary Clinton echoed Obama. Speaking at the Women in the World Summit about access to abortion, and about those who dissent from her particular position on the issue, she demanded that "deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed." How? By marshaling "resources and political will."
A fundamental right
It was an astounding statement by a presumptive president, and would drive a stake into the very heart of one's personal freedom to make moral decisions on the big questions of life and death. Is progressivism actually progressive if it seeks the removal of such a basic and fundamental right?
Should society be so eager to declare that the First Amendment no longer protects the religious convictions of Christians and Jews that include traditional concepts of morality? Are believers truly bigots if they refuse to surrender "deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases?" Or is it better for us all to protect and nurture the free exercise of religion in our public life?
As we enter a new era of self-defined existence and self-assigned truth, and as we write new cultural codes, beliefs, and structural biases, would it be wise for us to allow for dissent, for sincere convictions based on ageless wisdom? Are we so sure that everything we formerly believed is wrong?
Holocaust survivor and famed psychotherapist Viktor Frankl reminded us that "If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automation of reflexes, as a mind machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drive and reactions, as mere product of heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone."
In the century before Frankl's warning, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote "The Parable of a Madman," containing his proclamation that "God is dead." The Madman asks a list of harrowing questions in the aftermath: "Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder?"
If Nietzsche was right, then we have no ultimate escape from the nihilism of which Frankl warns. But if there is more to the story, if the possibility that divine purpose in the universe exists, and if there is a discoverable moral coherence for our lives, then we ought to protect individual freedom of conscience to pursue a life of faith, just as the Founders intended in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Who needs God? From the serpent's debate with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to the desert standoffs between Moses and Pharaoh, down to the post-modern times in which we now live, it remains life's paramount question. But it is a question for each person to answer, not the government.
Matt Kinnaman is an occasional contributor to The Eagle.