The New Definition of Freedom
Someone once famously distilled some two centuries of American debate over individual "rights" into a single sentence: "Your right to extend your fist," he said, "ends about one inch short of the tip of my nose."
There's wisdom there, but the wag who made the joke underestimated, as all of us do, the lengths to which some noses will go (and grow) to close that all-important gap.
World Magazine carried a revealing item during the Democratic National Convention about a little gathering of noses in Charlotte. Representatives of several groups tried to draw bystanders into their celebration of the president's abortion pill mandate -- a mandate that compels business owners across the country to pay for insurance that covers their employees' abortion pills, contraceptives, and sterilization procedures.
Many of those business owners cherish personal faith convictions that preclude their providing the means for others to destroy life. The Obama administration has made it manifestly clear that it doesn't care: religious freedom must be sacrificed to sexual freedom. And the life of a child in the womb doesn't really rate when compared to what his mother wants, no matter what that is.
On this particular day of the convention, this particular coterie of activists -- determined, in their own words, "not [to] allow conservative politicians and religious leaders to redefine the meaning of religious liberty" -- invited bystanders to listen while they redefined the meaning of religious liberty.
Sara Hutchinson of Catholics for Choice, for instance, defined true religious freedom as "the right to be respected as a moral decision maker ... to follow one's own conscience and religious beliefs." She made it clear, however, that this is a freedom available only to individuals; owners of businesses, private schools, and hospitals forfeit their freedom just by going into business. Interestingly enough, she said religious groups should not have religious freedom, either.
"Individuals have conscience; institutions do not," she said.
But -- someone dared ask -- what of individuals who run institutions?
They "are serving as an institution in that capacity," Ms. Hutchinson explained. In other words, it's not so much religious freedom that a business owner surrenders as...freedom of every kind.
About that time, Harry Knox, head of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, chimed in to contrast busybody business owners who refuse to pay for their employees' abortions with the selflessness of those promoting every woman's freedom to kill a child in the womb.
"No one in the abortion rights community or the reproductive justice community," he said, apparently with a straight face, "believes in imposing their views on others." Perhaps Mr. Knox is unfamiliar with the meaning of the term "mandate."
"The real threat today is not to religious liberty of the Catholic hierarchy," Ms. Hutchinson declared, "but to the freedom of conscience of the rest of America's Catholics." What doesn't seem to occur to her is that no one forces anyone to be Catholic. If, as a Catholic, she finds the directives of her church too confining, she is certainly free to transfer her involvement and allegiance to a different faith, in the same way one who practices homosexual behavior can always choose to buy his chicken sandwiches somewhere besides Chick-fil-A.
But, of course, that's not a legitimate option to those convinced that the world owes them their preferences (a group growing exponentially in America today). "Freedom," to their original thinking, means that the entire Catholic Church should renounce its doctrines, Chick-fil-A owners should repent in sackcloth and ashes, society should revise the definition of marriage, and Christians in general should rewrite the Bible -- all to accommodate the political fashions, personal insecurities, and spiritual convenience of those who hold other views.
And if churches and business owners won't do that voluntarily, the government should force them -- because forcing people to believe as you do is, as everyone knows, the only way to nurture freedom.
Dr. Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, caught wind of the outrage voiced by those promoting the abortion mandate in Charlotte and deftly assessed the essential hypocrisy at the root of their antipathy for other people's freedom of conscience.
"Their problem is not in recognizing that institutions have rights of conscience," he said. "Their problem is in recognizing that institutions whose teachings they don't agree with have rights of conscience."
Nailed it -- right on the nose.
Alan Sears is a former federal prosecutor who held various posts in the departments of Justice and Interior during the Reagan administration. He is president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom (www.alliancedefendingfreedom.org), an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.