This year this meditation is more important than ever. For the actions of our government have suddenly made a radical and troubling break from the American tradition of religious liberty. With the force of federal law, President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services has claimed to define what a religious organization is. The definition is narrow and legalistic: “one that (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets.”
This definition falls woefully short of the full Jewish and Christian conception of religion. True religion is to care for the widow and the orphan, Deuteronomy teaches, and the Sermon on the Mount carries through the same theme. In their view of religion, Jews and Christians include not just worship, and not just services to their own fellow believers, but schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, prison ministries, adoption services, adult-care services, addiction treatment centers, and so on, open to all who are in need. It is only through its continuation in such works that Jewish and Christian worship proves its authenticity. Indeed, such institutions have come into being precisely as religious ministries, as essential to the self-understanding of their sponsoring religious bodies.
The Obama administration’s radical break from the fundamental principle of our nation’s life, the most flagrant in the history of this nation born of and for liberty of conscience, is opposed by the swelling ranks of people of nearly all religious traditions in the land. This radical break is an offense against every citizen and also against God, the Almighty, the Creator, from Whom all our rights spring.
The Supreme Court has left standing the Affordable Care Act. There remain 23 lawsuits pending in 14 states and the District of Columbia, with a total of 56 plaintiffs arguing against the HHS mandate as an infringement of the American understanding and practice of religious liberty. That mandate springs from a new principle that, if not refuted, would lead from precedent to precedent toward the full domination of religion by the federal state.
Madison emphasized this threat at the very beginning: “it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle.”
— Elizabeth Shaw received her doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University. Her work has been published in First Things, Modern Age, and The Review of Metaphysics. Michael Novak is now a distinguished visiting professor at Ave Maria University in Florida, and has been a regular contributor to National Review.