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The Often-Forgotten Dimensions of Religious Freedom

February 2, 2012

There has been a lot of talk about the Obama administration’s egregious violation of religious freedom through its contraception mandate. There has not been a lot of talk about the other areas where religious freedom is under threat today.

One of those core areas is immigration, where some states are enacting laws that basically outlaw the practice of core tenets of the Christian faith. Think of Alabama. Here, the Catholic Church is suing – alongside some key Protestant denominations – on the grounds that the law violates religious freedom. On this issue, the Obama administration is on their side, and the Department of Justice has opened a lawsuit against Alabama. But here, as noted by Michael Sean Winters, Catholic candidate New Gingrich is on record saying that he would stop this lawsuit. Gingrich, true to form, is calling out the Obama administration for being anti-Catholic on the issues of religious freedom. Gingrich needs to look in the mirror. If Obama is anti-Catholic, then so is he. Religious freedom is a universal principle, not something to be applied selectively based on ideology.

And then there is the military. It is a well-established position of the Catholic Church that armed forces should recognize the right to conscientious objection – not just as a general principle, but for particular military encounters. Here is how the USCCB puts it in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: “Our Church honors the commitment and sacrifice of those who serve in our nation’s armed forces, and also recognizes the moral right to conscientious objection to war in general, a particular war, or a military procedure”. Not recognizing this right is an attack on conscience, and implicitly an attack on religious freedom. This is especially pertinent for the United States military, which is engaged in so many foreign adventures of doubtful and dubious value. And yet which president or presidential candidate has the courage to stand up for this principle? No, religious freedom is an important issue, and it goes far far beyond healthcare.

  1. February 2, 2012 2:36 pm

    Exactly the point I’ve been trying to make. Yes, I think the Obama administration is wrong, but on the other hand, it follows through with what we see going on in the US for a long, long time. We can easily look to Scalia and his support of limiting religious liberty in Smith; here the ACLU spoke out against the obvious infringement on religious liberty established. Should we not be surprised, then, that the outcome of Smith is to follow through with the logic established in it and to limit more and more religious liberty, because Scalia and SCOTUS allowed for a very narrow reading of religious liberty?

    I also have been thinking about how many of the so-called right, Catholic and non-Catholic, have supported the “law” in regards to illegal immigration and the desire to limit the Church’s ability to help illegal immigrants. “It’s the law,” was the mantra. Many of the same people now coming out of the woodwork against Obama supported the law against religious liberty when dealing Church’s desire to help and aid illegal immigrants. What, no religious liberty there, the law is the law? They have established the principle which now bites them and everyone else at the same time.

    I pray and hope the Obama administration re-examines what they are doing and changes their decision here. It is possible. However, those who always talk about “the law is the law” what about them? Now conscience is important? Really? It’s always been important, and often neglected. If they want to prove they really understand the issue, move beyond this one instance; if all they are interested is in Obama and his errors, then I know they are not interested in religious liberty. They will speak out now, then be silent when priests are charged with crimes as they help illegal immigrants. Sad.

    So again, this is not a defense of Obama. It is a defense of religious liberty. To defend religious liberty, we must see the root problem and how it has affected us for a long time. Focusing on Obama, as many do, shows no real concern about religious liberty. Who among those pointing to Obama now spoke up against Scalia? I’m sure some, but how many?

  2. Chris Sullivan permalink
    February 2, 2012 2:59 pm

    I note with approval that the USCCB recognizes the moral right to conscientious objection to war in general, a particular war, or a military procedure”

    I note also that the USCCB are currently making a lot of noise about the Bishops conscience rights.

    Did they also make a lot of noise insisting on the moral right to conscientious objection to particular recent wars ?

    If not, why not ?

    God Bless

    • February 2, 2012 3:06 pm

      The answer here isn’t simple. I have seen a constant discussion on this need by many bishops. The best, of course, was his grace, Eparch Botean. He spoke very loud on this issue at the opening of the Iraq War. The USCCB has consistently pointed out the need for conscience objection for soldiers, however, one gets the sense of urgency is less here than other issues. So it is there, and has remained there, as an object of concern, but the value given to it seems less than it should be, and I think that this has allowed for the development we see in the US today.

  3. johnmcg permalink
    February 2, 2012 3:10 pm

    I suppose one possible response to things like the Iraq war, torture of detainees, the health care crisis would be to contemplate other violations against human life such as violence against the unborn.

    Many people did just that, and I think it was to their discredit.

  4. February 2, 2012 3:30 pm

    I agree with all this.

    P.S. Not to be a prude, but you should know that some of the embedded advertisements on the site of late have been essentially soft-core porn! It’s quite distracting to read your post and then see a bunch of pretty women in underwear!

    • February 2, 2012 3:40 pm

      It might relate to your cookies, you know.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
      February 2, 2012 4:37 pm

      Yes, the problem may be local: when I view the site I see no advertising, and we are supposed to be an ad-free blog.

    • The Pachyderminator permalink
      February 2, 2012 5:07 pm

      FWIW, I’m also seeing the ads (this video is currently embedded below this very post, and it certainly shows a bit of skin), and I’m using a lab computer from which all cookies and things are deleted so you start fresh every time you log on. Might it be that you’re not seeing them because you’re signed into the site?

      • February 2, 2012 5:43 pm

        I don’t see any ads at all.

      • February 2, 2012 9:11 pm

        I’ve never seen them either. However, I do know that WordPress will randomly run ads on WordPress posts to support the free service (they don’t show for contributors logged in to the site, which, I take it, was the point of The Pachyderminator’s question); to guarantee that it never happens requires upgrading to a paid No-Ads level. I don’t know if you have that; if you do, it would be a browser issue, and if not, it’s probably a WordPress thing, so there’s not much to do about it either way.

      • February 2, 2012 10:35 pm

        That is odd! My computer is a work computer that, like Pachyderm’s, is regularly erased. I don’t know why I’m seeing the ads, but I’m glad it’s just me, I guess. (I suppose it makes me look like a creep for pointing it out!)

        • February 3, 2012 5:05 am

          No, it could be many things causing it — hard to tell what, though

        • February 3, 2012 8:39 am

          You might want to see if any spyware is on the computer. I know patheos has ads which I had to block coming up from it, and after going there, the ads would show up elsewhere. I now use adblocker on firefox to help.

  5. Thales permalink
    February 2, 2012 4:40 pm

    I’m right with you guys on the larger point of the importance of religious freedom. But when you talk about the right to conscientious objection in a military setting… it’s my understanding that that right is currently recognized and has been recognized for a long time; that there are procedures in place whereby a conscientious objector’s rights are respected. Is there a concern that this right is not currently being adequately protected that I’m not aware of? Is there a movement afoot to infringe this aspect of religious liberty?

    On the other tread, Henry told me that in his experience many Catholics have laughed at the conscientious objector; that hasn’t been my experience, but I’ll take his word. Those who laugh at the right of the objector are wrong, and it is good for these people to be educated that religious freedom is an important issue that extends most definitely to objecting to war. That’s why I agree with you guys on your larger point of religious freedom, especially the conscientious objector freedom, which I think is one of the most important freedoms to be recognized in our civil society.

    But I guess I’m not seeing the urgency to mobilize people against a possible loss of religious freedom in this area; I’m not seeing the necessity for presidential candidates to “stand up” for this aspect of religious freedom against infringement at this particular moment in time (are presidential candidates threatening to infringe this freedom?)….. all while there is an imminent and serious infringement on liberty from the HHS rule. To me, it’s obvious there is reason to focus on the HHS rule (because the threat is imminent), and not military conscientious objection (because it seems to me the threat is not imminent).

    ( I acknowledge I could be ignorant on this topic of military conscientious objecting. Also, I think your argument based on the immigration laws is the stronger one.)

    • Kurt permalink
      February 2, 2012 6:59 pm

      Is there a concern that this right is not currently being adequately protected that I’m not aware of?

      This has historically been a HUGE Catholic issue. Accomodating the historic peace churches, universal objection is recognized (objection to ALL war). Catholics have not been accomodated with our doctrine of just war and selective objection. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ was a great critic of the anti-Catholic nature of our conscientious objection laws.

    • February 2, 2012 7:41 pm


      The requirement for conscientious-objector status in the United States (at least when we had a draft) was that you object war itself—to all wars. During the Vietnam War, if you tried to be classified as a conscientious objector because you believed the Vietnam War was unjustified and immoral, but you admitted you would have fought in World War II, you could not be a conscientious objector.

      • Thales permalink
        February 2, 2012 11:26 pm

        Ah, interesting. Thanks, David and Kurt.

  6. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    February 2, 2012 5:59 pm

    I have said it before and will say it again. If the Catholic Church would use its clout to stem the endless circle of wars that Western culture has gotten into, they would erase so much that has gone wrong for them. They would be heros. But that would mean repudiating their Papal Knights like George Weigel.

  7. February 2, 2012 7:32 pm

    Using Safari on my Mac, I don’t see any ads either. But using Firefox on my Mac, and Internet Explorer on my PC, I do see the Camry ad. But I never use Firefox or Internet Explorer, so they don’t “remember” me for Vox Nova. Once I enter my e-mail address and name and my little individualized icon appears, the ads go away on Firefox and Internet Explorer.

  8. Bruce in Kansas permalink
    February 2, 2012 8:37 pm

    MM overlooked a significant part of the HHS policy by calling it a “contraception mandate.” The mandate includes buying insurance to fund free sterilization and the Plan B abortifacient.

    I think the immigration point is spot on.

    The conscientious objector issue comes across to me as a red herring. As a former Army officer, when on active duty I handled a single administrative discharge for a soldier who claimed to be conscientious objector. This is quite rare because since 1973, we no longer impress men through a draft based on overall fitness. In those days, once a draftee was notified, he was able to identify himself as a conscientious objector at that point,or even later as we went through training. With an all volunteer force, candidates for enlistment and for commissions are screened for such objections before they ever enter the service, so claiming CO status later is rare.

    There was a high-vis brouhaha back in 1995 with a US solider not wanting to serve in Bosnia, but he objected to serving under the UN, claiming constitutional grounds.

    I also see no ads on this site.

  9. Julia Smucker permalink*
    February 3, 2012 3:11 pm

    MM, regarding your first statement here, it would probably be more accurate to say that there has been a lot of talk from the “religious right” about how the contraception mandate violates religious freedom, and a lot of talk from the “religious left” about how current laws pertaining to immigration and/or conscientious objection do so. Both sides are right, and at the same time both are wrong in failing to make the connections.

    I thoroughly agree with your overarching point that it’s all of a piece, going beyond any single “issue” even though each is important.


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