Phil's essay is called On "Religious Freedom."
An unsettling development in public discourse is the way spokesmen for organized religion, especially the Catholic Church, have been able to claim a fictitious high ground, in which “moral beliefs” and “principle” and “conscience,” counterposed to the mere desire of women to avoid pregnancy, deserve special protection from the state; and in which efforts to subordinate those beliefs and principles to any analysis at all demonstrate instead moral tone-deafness and a hostile approach toward organized religion.
The argument, expressed quite concisely by Michael P. Warsaw (the “president and C.E.O. of EWTN Global Catholic Network”) in a New York Times op-ed page contribution on February 22nd (and earlier by Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat, as well as more recently by a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in The Sunday Review of April 15), comes in three parts. First, it is wrong, it amounts to religious persecution, for the state to “coerce” members of religious groups to act against their beliefs or principles or conscience (the three words tend to be used interchangeably in this context). Second, religious beliefs or principles stand on an especial high ground compared to other kinds of beliefs or principles. And third, whether or not one accepts that contrast, it is indubitably true for the United States, in that freedom to follow the tenets of one’s religion is uniquely granted protection by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Every one of these arguments is not only plainly wrong, but perniciously wrong.
The first leg of the argument, especially as coming from spokesmen for one of the more repressive and authoritarian of human institutions, is breath-taking both in its scope and its absurdity. To put it simply: Outside primitive tribes, the beliefs of groups of people constantly run into fierce and potentially hurtful or lethal conflict with those of other groups; dealing with this unavoidable fact of life, by compelling some people to act contrary to their beliefs, is not only what governments do, it is in large part what they come into existence to do. Nor do we mean by this violations of the Ten Commandments: murder, rape, theft, etc. Those are individual crimes and for the most part centralized states are not necessary to deal with them; localities can often do just as well, for large numbers of individuals do not go around declaring that it’s ok to commit those crimes according to their beliefs. Psychopaths aside, no one really has an expressed belief about these matters contrary to the beliefs of the mass of any population. It is when groups oppose other groups, and that opposition is grounded in beliefs about who is good or evil, who is just or unjust, who is oppressive or oppressed, who has rights or is denied rights, that the state must and invariably does take action.
The belief, e.g, that free enterprise exists if and only if human labor can be treated as a commodity like any other, and the contrary belief that human labor can never be thought of and treated as a commodity, are mutually incompatible, and two fundamentally different political regimes are based on them. The history of anti-trust legislation, of the use of the injunction, of violent strikes and violent strike-breaking, testifies to this opposition: strikers were killed, company property dynamited, factories occupied and police sent in to rout the occupiers. In the end, in the wake of factory occupations that totally repudiated the “law and order” upon which capitalism depends, the National Labor Relations Act coerced the owners of capital into compromising with the unions whose very existence was anathema to the rights of private property. Those owners have been struggling, sometimes with great success, against that settlement ever since: struggling for the right to use all the coercive means at their command to prevent workers from forming trade unions and calling strikes.
Indeed, as the child of a union household, I still remember the thrill that went through us all upon seeing the iconic 1944 photograph of Sewell Avery, the President of Montgomery Ward, being dragged from his office by National Guardsmen, kicking and screaming (“to hell with the government, you fucking New Dealer,” he shouted at Attorney-General Francis Biddle), because he had refused to allow unionization efforts at the company: taking a principled stand against “coercion,” the very word that he used. It was even more thrilling to watch Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, and the rest of the Little Rock Nine being escorted by armed soldiers into Little Rock Central High School; or to compare the moral courage of Autherine Lucy to the malignant racism of George Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” These were clashes of beliefs and principles, and not only was state coercion unavoidable, but whatever the outcome both sides were going to think they’d been right, and the losers were going to think they’d been unjustly coerced. It is not, after all, as though Autherine Lucy was uniquely principled; George Wallace had (or at least claimed to have) his principles too–they were just wrong. But the fact that for decades state power had contrarily been deployed on behalf of a malign principle doesn’t make the existence of coercion wrong, but only the uses to which it had been put. That is what must be discussed, not whether anyone is or is not being coerced.
But it is not necessary to advert to world-historical events to demonstrate the emptiness of the Church’s objection to being coerced. Every month my pension fund withholds taxes on my income, a significant portion of which will go to pay for what I consider to be an unremitting immersion in American war crimes as part of an undeclared and indefensible war in Afghanistan. One way or another I must pay that tax or I will be punished, perhaps jailed. Some have defied the State but I do not, for I think the principle of universal obligation is more important than would be my (purely symbolic) taking of an individual moral stance. As opponents of disobedience from the time of Socrates onward have argued, there would be no social order if disobedience were general. And this means not only disobedience to the traditional criminal law, but disobedience to public laws in general (in the instant case, implementation of the 2009 Health Care Reform Act): laws that inevitably raise up one set of beliefs about social organization and group behavior, and proscribe action on behalf of another.
But then we need not resort to our own personal beliefs or principles to see the problem here; we need only to let the spokesmen for the Church speak for themselves. For what they desire above all, more passionately than any other desire they have expressed an opinion about in recent times, is to reinstitute laws that coerce women into not having abortions and to punish them, and their doctors, if they then do so. They believe, much more deeply than I do in fact, in the right and duty of the state to punish people who have or act upon wrong beliefs; who lack their principles. Nor is this a case of persons with principles opposing persons with “merely” naked self-interest. On the contrary, whatever the needs and thoughts of individual women seeking abortion might be, for four decades both liberal and radical feminist thought have stood firmly on the principle that women ought to have control of their own bodies; and that the contrary stance of the Catholic Church is not so much a principled desire to save “innocent lives” as it is an all-out, no-holds-barred effort of an uncaring patriarchy to keep women in their place: their place of subordination. But leaving the rightness or wrongness of competing beliefs about conception and life aside, how can it be a matter of inconsequence to be forced to bring into the world a child that one does not want to have, and from then on to live a life that one did not want to be living; or a matter of inconsequence to be forced to violate one’s beliefs as an obstetrician as to whether women deserve to have the medical procedure they desire; and yet be a matter of deepest consequence to be forced to pay, not even personally but rather institutionally, a “tax” which one does not wish to pay on behalf of a belief--about contraception--that most people do not share? This is not moral reasoning; it is the rejection of moral reasoning, in favor of religious dogma. It is unscrupulous in its contempt for contrary principles in the name of principle.