Can Religious Freedom Be Saved?
Rolling back the Obama administration’s attack on freedom of conscience

Protesters gather outside the Health & Human Services building in Washington, D.C., March 23, 2012.


In his encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II warned of the dangers of a totalitarian form of democracy — in which laws are enacted that violate the fundamental moral law, and endanger authentic freedom and dignity.

The Affordable Care Act takes a dangerous step in that direction. To understand this, we must look behind the details of mandates, “accommodations,” and “compromises.” We must recognize that the ACA embodies a totalitarian mindset that is fundamentally incompatible with liberty.

All individuals and institutions in America will be brought into line with a state-approved anti-life ideology that views fertility as a threat, pregnancy as a disease, and children as a burden to be eliminated. Churches and religious organizations will be defined by the government and vulnerable to penalties if they dissent or resist. Faith-based institutions will be subject to intrusive investigation by officials who will pass judgment on the nature and legitimacy of their religious purpose and the beliefs of their staffs and the people they serve. Religious people will be coerced into speech and actions that endorse and promote things they find morally reprehensible. Even members of religious communities, such as the Sisters of Life, will be forced to violate their sacred vows or face punitive fines.

The temptation is to tinker around the edges of this threat, make compromises, and protect narrow institutional interests. But all that does is delay the inevitable, and lull us back into denial. Surely we have passed that point, and instead have reached what biographer Eric Metaxas has called a “Bonhoeffer moment” — a time to stand firmly but lovingly in defense of religious liberty, even to the point of suffering. We cannot let things go farther down the path to totalitarian democracy. We must speak the truth with love, and resist by all lawful means.

Edward T. Mechmann is assistant director of the Family Life/Respect Life Office at the Archdiocese of New York.

Beneath the talking points of “rights of women to control their bodies” and “robust exemptions for faith-based institutions” lies a deeper, structural threat to religious liberty, a threat that neither side of the current HHS controversy squarely confronts.

In the 20th century, Americans accepted a massive expansion of the role of government. Good reasons existed for us to do this. Racial injustice, poverty, and excessive inequality infected the country.  

But in our efforts to make the lives of citizens more equal and more humane, we lost focus on the proper role of government and let it become more dangerous. We invited the state to regulate more and more aspects of our everyday lives, such as what products we bought at the grocery store, the terms of our employment at our places of work, and how we could use our own land and resources. We have become so accustomed to government regulating our private lives that a large segment of the population understands freedom as something the government provides, not as something that government respects.  

Religious freedom cannot long survive when government is thus understood and acts accordingly. Religion seeks to guide individuals in the ways they live their lives. The more the government does this, the less religion can do so.  

Many on the left would rather have government direct Americans’ lives than religion. They trust government; they fear religion. When religion and government conflict, they favor government. It’s not that they are necessarily opposed to religious freedom, but they are for government action and what it can accomplish. The Left threatens religious freedom because, for most liberals, it is not a priority.

Those on the other side of the HHS controversy are calling for government to accommodate religious institutions and their affiliates more extensively. When religion and government conflict, they favor exemptions from government action. But this is like addressing the problem of chronic flooding by buying some homeowners boats. It does not address the loss of liberty for those who lack religious objections to burdensome laws. More fundamentally, it does not solve the problem of government overflowing its proper bounds. The pro-exemption position fails to understand that it is the increasing tide of government action that threatens religious liberty.

Big government and religious freedom are necessarily opposed. If the current HHS controversy does not teach us that lesson, the ever-increasing activity of government will continue to erode our religious liberty.

— Vincent Phillip Muñoz is the Tocqueville Associate Professor of Political Science and Law at the University of Notre Dame and author of God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson.