Conscience is in the news again as a government shutdown looms, and all of America gets the sense that Washington is shirking its duties or is otherwise an uncivil mess. The truth of the matter is that we all are. Whether we’re talking about a train wreck of a health-care law or our disregarding of conscience, we are a people with some serious stewardship issues.
For a number of years now, there have been warnings of religious liberty’s being threatened right here in the United States. Of course, one might disagree politically with the people issuing the warnings — and, in fact, many of them have been ignored or dismissed or drowned out. But are you willing to dismiss the Little Sisters of the Poor? They run homes for the elderly — some of our most vulnerable — and are now suing the Department of Health and Human Services in the first class-action lawsuit against the abortion-drug, contraception, and female-sterilization mandate, which has proven to be a prescription for angst for employees and employers alike, riddled with uncertainty, new burdens, and assaults on religious liberty. Back when we were arguing about the bill that Congress infamously had to pass before we could find out what it was all about, there were a lot of lies, and accusations that opponents were lying. Now, as the truth is laid bare, how about we ask a fundamental question: What is the United States?
American exceptionalism has been a phrase used and abused and misunderstood of late, subjected to projections and deconstruction. But is there something special here? An experiment in ordered liberty that gives people the room to be who they feel called to be, even if that calling is a matter of religious duty? The Founders knew you wanted Christian neighbors. A democratic republic needs people of virtue.
Right about now we need people to point out the obvious. In New York, as autumn was officially ushered in, an event at Columbia University considered our falling away from what the Founders instituted. It reviewed the Manhattan Declaration, an ecumenical move in 2009 to defend life, marriage, and religious liberty.
At its heart, the Manhattan Declaration states that God “has placed a design in his creation,” as Cardinal Timothy Dolan put it. The Bible, our faith, nature, human reason, American wisdom — all tell us that, he said. But “enlightened contemporary culture” wants very little to do with all this. It thinks it’s beyond this. That has toxic consequences.
You may be reading this and thinking: This is the talk of the intolerant, the self-righteous, the backward. What about equality? What about love?
But what if what the Manhattan Declaration says is true? And what about it is not worth considering and debating? What are we afraid of that we have no room for it in the public square?
Among other questions fundamentally urgent to ask right about now, Eric Metaxas, a prolific author and upstanding citizen, issued words of caution at a Human Life Review dinner in New York on Thursday: “It’s one thing to live in a country where we can speak the truth, even though it be unpopular. But what happens if it becomes culturally uncomfortable to speak some truths, as it has on the issue of life, and on the issue of traditional marriage? And what if that leads to the state’s outlawing some truths — whether spoken or lived?”
The state right now has in essence, contrary to the First Amendment, established a religion by insisting that some religious views are not fit to be uttered outside a church or your own bedroom, underneath a throwback image of the Sacred Heart, or whatever your time capsule looks like. It’s not just the Obama administration. In the case of those New Mexico photographers, the state supreme court declared that subscribing to the government’s newly minted definition of marriage is a mandate, too. We’re not talking here about anyone denying Sandra Fluke her birth control or barring the door to two men’s wedding. We’re talking about being forced to participate and collaborate. Surely we have room here to disagree, even as we wish everyone well? And surely we have room here to actually debate this? Not just at a Supreme Court/congressional level, but also in personal conversation about what the good life may be? That is an open question today: Do we have that right? Or has the government decided that what many see as self-evident truth is not even fit for raising?
At Columbia University, for the first time one longtime chaplain there can remember, the program for the Manhattan Declaration event had a mandatory disclaimer (“The views expressed during this event are solely those of the speakers and presenters. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, or staff of the Teachers College or of Columbia University.”), lest anyone think the enlightened folks there believe that religious freedom as our Founders understood it — and as Copts and Pakistani Christians have been martyred for trying to practice — is fit for their campus.
If we believe in freedom, then, on marriage and even on how we treat innocent human life — the human-rights issue of our lives — people will disagree. But they also have the right to clear consciences. As Metaxas put it, “When the government takes a stand and says we opt for this view over that one, we are in trouble.” Now Christian employers and Catholic sisters and Christian photographers must comply. “At that point religious liberty is threatened. And when that first of all liberties is eroded, all liberties will soon suffer. And America as we know it cannot any longer exist. That is the road to serfdom, my friends.”
Reasonable people can disagree while still agreeing to ask: What is freedom, and where would I be without it? Some of us are beginning to get a better picture. What is not cherished will be lost.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.