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Natural Law

Conscience Rights Are the Bedrock of All Liberty

The Statue of Liberty (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

David writes about the way in which conscience rights are covered in the press — specifically, about the way in which they are forced into ignominious quotation marks or attached to disparaging qualifiers such as “so-called.” As he observes, the reflexive view within the media is that anyone talking about their “conscience” must be a “bigot” or a “misogynist” who is engaged in an “elaborate scheme.”

I would like to know when this trend started, and where our betters expect that it will end. Although our present fights over conscience often involve religious belief, it is by no means the case that “conscience” is synonymous with “religious belief.” On the contrary: The idea of conscience rights is indispensable to a free society whether that society is religious or not. Prohibitions against forced speech represent protections of conscience. Anti-censorship rules represent protections of conscience. So, inter alia, do rules that protect anti-war protestors and Pride Month marchers, statutes that create avenues for whistleblowers, and our cultural preference for a volunteer army. As NR’s resident heathen, I am — and I should be — every bit as invested in the maintenance of conscience rights as the most devoutly Catholic of my colleagues. Why? Two reasons. First, because I am a classical liberal and pluralist, and because one can have neither classical liberalism nor pluralism without conscience rights. Second, because I do not know at what point I myself will need to assert my own conscience against a majority that is trying to compel me to violate it. I have read enough history to know that the individual is never safe forever.

It will horrify most of its members to hear this, but it seems pretty clear to me that, far from being a repository of tolerance and enlightened thought, our media is made up mostly of people who deeply dislike the eccentrics and rebels and dissenters in our society, and who wish to wound them and to push them to the margins whenever they are able. This approach is extraordinarily myopic, of course, but it is real nevertheless — and to the extent that when, in a century or so, we come to look back and wonder why our culture simply gave up on trying to accommodate its heretics, we will have an easy answer at our fingertips: Because the people who were charged with reporting on a vast, boisterous, diverse, and free country decided that the prerequisites to liberty were not the trellis upon which the national garden might grow, but a sinister plot to be uncovered and crushed.


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