That 'Conscience Thing'

So: Nancy Pelosi is concerned that America's Catholic bishops have "this conscience thing" because they oppose an Obamacare mandate that would force Catholics to buy insurance policies that cover abortion.  Nothing could so graphically illustrate the former speaker's unmooredness in American history and tradition than her cavalier dismissal of that "conscience thing."

In almost explicit terms, Pelosi has revealed that "the culture war," which is at bottom a war against the religious basis of our culture, has now been carried into attacks on the very moral foundations of our civilization.  For surely, the free exercise of religion, if it's to mean anything significant for our public life, must mean the right to follow one's moral conscience -- the right to have, in the former speaker's dismissive words, a "conscience thing."  That right, indeed, is the foundation of all other rights, including particularly the right to stand for one's own moral and religious convictions.

Historically, this right is among those most deeply embedded in our religious, and then our political, traditions.  Martin Luther, refusing to recant his writings, famously said that "[t]o go against conscience is neither right nor safe. ... Here I stand, I can do no other."  He must certainly have had a "conscience thing."

Anne Hutchinson was expelled from the Puritan theocracy at Massachusetts Bay for teachings unacceptable to the clerical governor.  She must have had a "conscience thing."  And Roger Williams had a "conscience thing" that led him to Rhode Island and the first polity that separated church and state.  Because for Roger Williams, each person's "conscience thing" was so important that it should never be intimidated or suborned by another.

But for Nancy Pelosi, apparently, if it's the state that compels and suborns conscience so that even anti-abortion Catholics must buy insurance that covers abortion (thereby financially supporting that policy), that's okay.  Secularists (and Nancy Pelosi, as the Marxists would say, is "objectively" a secularist) may impose their permissive morality on unwilling Catholics, all the while screaming about the looming prospect of an American theocracy.

But there's a reason why the guarantee of religious liberty is the first clause of the First Amendment.  For freedom of conscience is the root of all our other freedoms -- not only historically, but also logically.

For what is the "free exercise of religion"?  Is it (merely) the freedom to go to the church of our choice and pray in private as we wish?  Or does the free exercise of religion mean the right to live according to our religion's moral teachings, and the right to not be coerced into actions that violate our "conscience thing," no matter how inconvenient or trivial those  teachings may seem to liberals like Mrs. Pelosi and those who wrote those coercive clauses into the Affordable Care Act?

We have, as the second clause of the First Amendment tells us, freedom of speech.  But where behavior may be coerced, so may speech.  If we can be forced to do what we think is wrong, might we not also be forced to speak our assent to the behavior? -- or, at least short of political heroism, be compelled into silence?  And if we are not free to speak what our conscience commands of us, freedom of speech itself begins to descend to the realm of the trivial.  Free to speak of what?  Of the weather?  Of who will win the World Series?  Unless there is freedom to speak what is morally significant, no matter how challenging it might be to whoever currently holds power, of what significance is it?

Historically, the right to speak and follow one's conscience was won at the very outset of our modern world, as a way to bring peace between Catholic and Protestant and to end the religious wars that had resulted in so much slaughter in Europe.

It was also won four hundred years ago by Roger Williams in Rhode Island, and those who followed him, as he spoke out against the Puritan theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay colony.  It was accepted and affirmed by George Washington when he wrote to the Jewish Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel that "the citizens of the United States ... [a]ll possess alike liberty of conscience."  And of course, Thomas Jefferson, in words inscribed under the dome of the Jefferson Memorial, declared, "I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility to any form of tyranny over the mind [i.e., the intellectual conscience] of man."  (My brackets.)

Yes, Mrs. Pelosi, some of us have a "conscience thing," and we regard it as the cornerstone of our integrity and the guardian of our souls.  And we don't have to try to shut other people up because we don't want to listen to it.  If you don't know what one of those "things" is, no amount of scuttling among the debris that secular liberalism has left of your faith will help you find one.