Whose Conscience? Which Religion? The Enemy Is Partially Us

Ruling on Health Care Needs to Be Judged in Light of Truth

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By E. Christian Brugger

WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 24, 2012 (Zenit.org).- There is a lot of anger over the Obama administration's recently announced decision to require religiously-affiliated employers to cover contraceptive services in their insurance plans, and rightly so. On Friday, the secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Kathleen Sebelius, announced that institutions such as Catholic universities and hospitals have one-year to "adapt" their policies to ensure employee coverage for all FDA approved contraceptives, including the abortion drug Ella, no copays, no deductibles.

Opponents of the mandate are crying foul: "Obama has waged a war on religious liberty!" "Conscience rights are being trampled!," and so on. Because I hold the Obama administration in such disdain, I feel sympathy for these battle cries. But I fear the problem is deeper; and that if we don't take a harder look at what's going on around us, we'll all end up like Dr. Seuss' North-going Zax and South-going Zax, puffing out our chests, standing nose to nose with our enemy, barking out disagreements devoid of understanding of the deeper problem. Easy as it is to blame the liberals for this appalling state of affairs, I think the problem to a certain degree is that none of us any longer believe in truth.

This wasn't always so. Once upon a time, "reasonable laws" were the aims of lawmakers. "Reasonable" in the eminent tradition of English common law -- the seedbed for our Anglo-American legal tradition -- meant "in accord with right reason," which meant "true." So reasonable standards were true standards. And true standards were something that stood over and above the standard-bearer. They corresponded in some primordial way with reality, to which republicans and monarchists, conservatives and liberals alike were subordinate. Everyone knew, of course, that error was possible and no one was brash enough to hold that every policy proposed or adopted was timelessly true. But the standard toward which political discourse aimed was a standard of truth.

We are now embarrassed by the term "truth." As an artifact of language ("We hold these 'truths' to be … "), the term is still occasionally heard in the public sphere. But as a normative term affirming the correspondence of some proposition with reality, the term in the public sphere has been dead and buried for decades. It connotes being inflexible and uncompromising, a genuine threat to pluralism, an offense against dialogue, and an insult against inclusivity -- American virtues all. Down deep in our democratic soul, we suspect -- yes, even conservatives -- that those who assert "truth" in the public sphere are dangerously slouching toward tyranny. After all, we rejected in 1776 Britain's Erastian politico-religious system of the "divine" right of kings.

So we talk rather about opinion, consensus and party platforms. We reduce moral judgment and religious belief to sectarian "rights," with the full implication that no moral judgment or religious doctrine is timelessly true. In order to avoid sectarian conflict, we agree to tolerate the ideas of the other side. But we believe they (i.e., the other side and their ideas) are stupid and our side is right. And rightness -- and this is the clincher -- is an essentially subjective concept, no connection to truth. Of course, to sever rightness and truthfulness is philosophically untenable. But dammit we're Americans, not philosophers.

What are we left with? Elections. Get our guy into office so he can advance our view and oppose the other side. Sounds like a bunch of children on a playground: befriend the big kid. We seem content to resolve weighty issues bearing on the future of our civilization through political solutions. But, alas, politicians are sinners. When our guy gets in, he starts an unjustified war, bullies smaller nations whose cultures he doesn't understand, apologizes for American failings, fraternizes with tyrants, fornicates, adulterizes, says he's "sorry" and other maddening things such as "I feel your pain" or "mission accomplished!" We grow disillusioned, throw him out of office, and search for another savior. Has our grand experiment in ordered liberty been replaced by a conception of authority more near to Nietzche's ubiquitous will-to-power? Can the integrity of our community endure five more decades of this modus operandi

Has "Obama waged a war on religious liberty"? Are "conscience rights being trampled"? He and his defenders certainly don't think so. They think they're waging a war on intolerance and bigotry that has its origin in anti-pluralistic, dogmatic, subjective religious opinion. And our side unwittingly reinforces that view. Ten out of 10 conservative blogs and sites after the HHS decision announced: "Conscience is under attack!" "Religion is under attack!" Rubbish. Truth, reality, human welfare is under attack. "Conscience" to the other side means subjective moral opinion; and when it's our consciences they're referring to, it means dangerous moral opinion; and "religion" means bigotry. Of course they're going to oppose it. But we -- all of us -- have supported the public rhetorical instruments by which those terms have become morally inert. 

Yes, there is a lot of anger over Obama's radically illiberal policy. But that anger is only rightly felt if it concerns the violation, not of legal or even constitutional rights, but the violation of truth. We need to stand up and say confidently and resolutely to Kathleen Sebelius, her thugs at HHS and her puppet-master in the White House: Your view is false and untrue; it radically violates human good and is destructive of communal integrity. Forcing persons wrongfully to cooperate in actions they judge to be evil is evil. And no president, king or emperor rightly demands others to do what is evil. We won't do it.

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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation; and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado. He is a contributor to ZENIT's biweekly Wednesday column, Questions on Bioethics.