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Obamacare Among the Mennonites

by Brandon McGinley

They can conscientiously object to war, so why not the HHS mandate?

Lancaster County, Pa. — When I meet Anthony Hahn, president and CEO of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, he is carrying a Bible and a copy of the “Confession of Faith and Congregational Guidelines” for his branch of the Mennonite Church. On shelves in the conference room is a small library of business tomes: Handbook of Modern Finance, Financial Valuation: Businesses and Business Interests, and the 2003 handbook of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.

Faith and business have been part of the Hahn family’s experience since 1964, when Anthony’s father, Norman, and Norman’s brother Sam began a small woodworking firm across the street from the company’s current headquarters. Anthony isn’t blind to the tensions between his identities as Mennonite and businessman. “Amassing wealth,” as he put it, doesn’t make sense in a cosmological order in which this life is temporary and the fullness of life is in heaven. But “God blessed us with this company,” he says, and it requires their stewardship here and now.

The Hahns have been privileged to live in a country that allows them to maintain these dual identities, and even to place their faith identity above all others — “We are Christians first.” Whatever tensions exist have been resolved in reasonable ways that suit the family and its Mennonite faith tradition.

But now Anthony and his family and their company have gone before the Supreme Court of the United States, defending their right to organize the company according to their religious values — their right to be Christians first. (One of the Hahns’ attorneys is my colleague at the Pennsylvania Family Institute.) The Hahns object to the abortifacient qualities of some of the “preventative” drugs they are obligated to include in their employees’ insurance under the Affordable Care Act. For the first time, the family is being forced to decide between its business and its faith.

We can say, without falling into patriotic mythmaking, that America began as a home for the homeless. For Mennonites, as well as other religious believers, this was true both physically and spiritually. The history of this particular strand of Anabaptists was one of hopping across Europe from persecution to persecution, staying in one place only as long as the local authorities would tolerate them. The last stop for a large number of Mennonites was an infant America, and specifically William Penn’s free domain west of the Delaware River.

For this people rooted more in shared faith than in shared geography, Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County has provided centuries of relative stability. But even here, among these preternaturally verdant rolling fields, they do not feel truly settled. This world “is not our home,” Anthony Hahn told me. “We are sojourners.”

The sentiment of spiritual homelessness can be a difficult one for a nation to accept. It implies an allegiance to a power greater than the state and its laws; even the potential of conflict between these allegiances limits the authority of the state. And yet as recently as 1946 the Supreme Court declared that toleration of precisely this attitude is essential to the American project. In Girouard v. United States, which overturned previous rulings by holding that pacifism must not be a barrier to the naturalization of an immigrant, Justice William O. Douglas asserted that being an American does not exclude commitments higher and greater than the American state:

The struggle for religious liberty has through the centuries been an effort to accommodate the demands of the State to the conscience of the individual. The victory for freedom of thought recorded in our Bill of Rights recognizes that in the domain of conscience there is a moral power higher than the State. Throughout the ages, men have suffered death rather than subordinate their allegiance to God to the authority of the State. Freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment is the product of that struggle.

And so the Mennonites, physical and spiritual sojourners, have had a physical home that has tolerated their spiritual homelessness. In the Hahn family, as in any Mennonite family, this relationship has manifested itself in the ability to be conscientious objectors to military service.

The one concept that continues to unite Mennonites — liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional — is pacifism. Whereas for most American men who are coming of age, the draft is a wisp of a notion that arrives and passes around the 18th birthday, for many Mennonites, non-military national service is part of growing up. Though there hasn’t been a draft in more than a generation, the Hahns’ Keystone Conference of the Mennonite Church sends young adults on service trips around the country as part of its commitment to “alternative service.”

It’s a delicate balance to strike between religious liberty and the national interest, but for American Mennonites, a people peculiarly set apart, that balance has been deftly achieved. They can participate in American life in every way, including business (though you won’t see many Mennonite legislators or police officers — directly wielding the power of the state is prohibited), while remaining spiritual sojourners beholden first to their faith.

But now, after generations of declining to conscript members of the Hahn family for military service, the federal government is attempting to conscript the family and its business into the service of an administration’s health-care agenda.

The Hahns’ lawsuit over the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate introduced a new tension into the family’s relationship with its faith. Mennonites are not to use the law, which is considered an instrument of force, in their dealings with others; Christian charity ought to prevail. But in the case of the mandate, Anthony Hahn identified a moment in which “man’s laws and God’s laws conflict.” The lawsuit, then, is an appeal to a higher form of “man’s law” — the Constitution, or, more accurately, the Constitution viewed through the lens of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — to vindicate the family’s right to follow God’s law first.

It’s a use of the Constitution that would delight America’s founders and first settlers — not to mention the religious-freedom champion William Penn. But this right — to follow one’s interpretation of divine law above the civil law — is not absolute. No one who argues for religious liberty thinks such liberty ought to be limitless. If it were, we really would be left with “every citizen [as] a law unto himself,” as Justice Scalia put it in Employment Division v. Smith, the case in response to which the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed. The real debate is over where, exactly, that limit ought to be.

For pacifists like the Hahns, there’s a certain ridiculousness to the fight over the HHS mandate. What kind of serpentine line between the freedom of conscience and the rule of law could place opting out of military service in times of national emergency on the former side, and providing free abortifacient drugs and devices on the latter side? Certainly a government that can override conscientious objection to providing contraception can also override conscientious objection to taking up arms in defense of the country. For now there is a national consensus in favor of permitting conscientious objection to warfare; it would be absurd to argue that forcing a family-run corporation to pay for abortifacient drugs rises to the same level of national interest.

And there’s good reason for that consensus: We recognize that letting conscientious objectors avoid military service imperils no other foundational right or privilege of American citizens. The marginal impact on military capabilities is overwhelmed by the absolute harm done to an individual’s conscience, and therefore to one of this nation’s founding principles. Supporters of the HHS mandate muddy the waters by asserting a new fundamental right that is harmed by objectors such as the Hahns — not just the right to use contraceptive and abortifacient drugs and devices, but the right to be given those items free of charge. Even if this were a right worthy of our consideration, it would evaporate when brought into contact with the essential right of conscience.

This juxtaposition isn’t a constitutional argument, to be sure. A constitutional right to object to military conscription has never been articulated, though the Supreme Court has ruled that non-religious objections must be considered as valid as religious ones. Rather, this is an argument about the type of nation we want to be. Will we be a country that looks at any appeal to an authority above the state as suspicious or even seditious, or will we be a country that allows plenty of room for religious motivations even if we find them strange?

This isn’t new territory for the Hahns; Mennonites are accustomed to being seen as a little odd. Though the concentration of coreligionists in Pennsylvania Dutch country has allowed the family never to feel totally out of place, the idea of nonconformity is a running theme in my conversation with Anthony. Christians are not called to follow their faith privately, he maintains, but to live boldly in a way that demonstrates, without showiness, the eternal truths that motivate them. This entails nonconformity with the prevailing culture in any age, but particularly in one as secular as our own. At Conestoga this means, for instance, that all business — even that of delivery trucks — stops on Sunday.

But the state abhors the craggy cultural landscape that results from conspicuous nonconformity. The great sociologist Robert Nisbet referred to the “sealing” power of the state, which fills in fissures of cultural diversity in order to create an artificial but more easily manageable uniformity. Families such as the Hahns, groups such as the Mennonites, and places such as Lancaster County form a few of the innumerable fissures in American cultural life that make our society not just more interesting but more dynamic, more free, and more humane. The present administration’s handling of the HHS mandate reminds us of the continuing threat that these fissures will be progressively sealed off.

For his part, Anthony is coy about his family’s prospects in the cabinetmaking business, allowing that he is “concerned about the future of Christians in business.” Though he has received unsolicited support from within his industry for standing up for his beliefs, it’s not clear how long that will last. He foresees “serious hurdles” even if the Supreme Court decides in his family’s favor.

Mennonites are not the only religious group for which America is a resting place rather than a final destination. Any faith that holds out the hope of joining in divine transcendence must regard this life from the perspective of eternity. “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You” as Saint Augustine famously addresses God at the beginning of the Confessions. No sincere religious believer ought to feel perfectly at home here, even in the Land of the Free.

And so perhaps there’s something suitable about this emerging state of affairs, in which religious Americans are viewed with suspicion and even hostility by the state and its lackeys. Perhaps it would make a political and social reality out of what is already a spiritual reality. Perhaps Christians and Jews and Muslims and whoever else rejects the state’s preeminence should be restricted in their participation in the life of the state. Perhaps.

But is this really the country we want? One where the state imposes a flat and featureless cultural landscape? Where orthodoxy is a political concept in addition to a religious one? Where Anthony Hahn is told that he can have the Bible or the Handbook of Modern Finance but not both?

No, I don’t think that’s the country we want. Not yet.

– Mr. McGinley is the field director for the Pennsylvania Family Institute.

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