Religious Thought and the HHS Mandate
Arguments regarding the role of religious thought in public debates have returned to the spotlight in the controversy surrounding the administration's abortifacient, sterilization, and contraceptive mandate. Defenders of that mandate have argued that religious thought should not play a role in public debates. Nancy Pelosi accused the Catholic Church of trying to impose its faith on others. Al Sharpton claimed that religious opposition violates the so-called "separation of church and state." Liberals objected to attempts to amend the mandate, by Senator Marco Rubio and others, as attempts to impose a religious agenda, and largely refused to consider the merits of those amendments.
President Obama seems to have missed the memo, noting that "the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it[.]" And sincere or not, he has a point: religious arguments may not prevail in every case, but they deserve a fair hearing.
People hold passionate opinions on countless issues, but in a republic, the appropriate response to disagreement is discussion in an open forum, not muzzling fellow citizens. Why do the defenders of the mandate single out religion for exclusion from the public discourse? Why does Nancy Pelosi claim that religious people "impose" their ideas on others while secular thinkers merely "convince" others? Religion played an important role in American history, and its proponents should take pride in its accomplishments. They should not allow anyone to bully them into silence.
For example, religious ideas have driven the expansion of human freedom throughout the centuries. John Locke premised his theories of private property and consensual government on the principle that God, the ultimate owner of the world, gave the right to work the earth to all men and not to any tyrant. The freedoms asserted in our Declaration of Independence are premised on the same notion of equality before God. William Loyd Garrison, a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and an early supporter of women's suffrage, noted that "[w]herever there is a human being, I see God-given rights inherent in that being, whatever may be the sex or complexion." Martin Luther King, Jr. attributed the civil rights movement's adoption of non-violence to the influence of God through the Church. These ideas enriched our world and helped spread human freedom. Silencing such voices for narrow political gain is misguided and would impoverish our marketplace of ideas.
One proposed solution, that religious groups should limit their participation in policy debates to issues that directly affect them, is subjective to the point of incoherence. Were white abolitionists threatened by slavery? Were Englishmen who protested the slave trade threatened by that odious practice? It is enough that they cared about the issues and took principled and often courageous stances. Why should anyone, especially the people who disagree with them on the merits of the argument, be allowed to tell religious groups that they do not belong in the debate and that they have misjudged their own interests? Based on that standard, no religious group could ever face a threat or appropriately participate in a debate.
It is entirely rational for people, including religious people, to want to live in a world that reflects their ideals. The attempt to influence policy to more closely comport with one's ideals is an attempt to improve one's own feelings of belonging and security, not an attempt to impose anything on others.
Those who want to remove religious arguments from public discourse argue that religious people are not precluded from the debate; they can participate so long as they stick to secular arguments based on "reason." This is not how human beings function. People cannot divorce themselves from their ideals and principles and approach issues as if they were automatons programmed to dispassionately weigh political issues. It does not matter if the people in question are religious or secular; they will necessarily view issues in light of their ideals, beliefs, and first principles. There is no justification for requiring religious people to act dishonestly and feign inhuman neutrality. Such a demand singles out religious people for unique and undeserved stigmatization.
Some proponents of quarantining religious arguments concede that religious arguments are permissible if they are used merely to bolster secular reasoning. Once again, who is to determine whether a secular argument is persuasive? The proponents of the measure in question? The opponents of the measure? Every area of discourse is debated and contested. In order to apply this principle, the argument would have to be settled before religious people knew whether to enter the fray. This argument is also unconvincing because it presumes that religious thought is somehow inferior and subservient to secular thought. That position is demeaning to billions of people and some of the greatest minds in history. People do not choose between religious and secular argumentation based on whim; they choose arguments that reflect their personal beliefs, and in order to best influence their audience.
Good ideas are the first step toward good outcomes. We cannot afford to shut out religious ideas that have proven beneficial in the past. As President Obama noted in light of the many challenges our country faces, the values that "defined my own faith journey ... are the values I believe we're going to have to return to in the hopes that God will buttress our efforts." If defenders of the HHS mandate truly believe that their ideas are superior, they should prove it, rather than disingenuously trying to silence their critics.
Howard Slugh is an attorney practicing in Washington, D.C.
(Editor's note: This was earlier a reprint of Mr. Slugh's "Demonizing Conservative Thought." The error has obviously been corrected.)