Liberty and Conscience

National Affairs, Fall 2013.

One of the more dubious achievements of the Obama administration has been to put religious freedom and the rights of conscience back on the agenda in American politics. Most notoriously, the administration has sought to impose upon private employers, including religious people and even religious institutions, a requirement to provide their employees with health-insurance coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization procedures, and contraceptives, even if the employer cannot, as a matter of conscience, comply. Large employers who fail to provide such coverage will be subject to a significant fine — in effect paying a price for abiding by their religious convictions.

The administration’s mandates have been challenged on statutory and constitutional grounds in federal courts around the country, and it seems reasonably likely that the Supreme Court, pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, will ultimately require exemptions for religious employers and others who conscientiously object. The mandates’ critics argue that they constitute an assault on the freedom of religious employers to follow their consciences, and so needlessly compel a choice between civic obligations and religious ones.

Of course, the administration contends that its mandates do not violate religious freedom or the rights of conscience, properly understood. Indeed, the administration argues that the mandates — which contain only the narrowest of exemptions — are necessary precisely to protect the freedom and the rights of conscience of women who wish to use contraceptives and abortifacient drugs, or to avail themselves of sterilization procedures. To exempt these women’s employers from providing coverage for such products and procedures would be to allow those employers to impose their moral views on workers who may not share them.

Thus, we find people on both sides of the debate claiming to be the defenders of liberty and conscience. The sorts of arguments that each side makes, however, compel us to consider the relationship between freedom and conscience. In the often-used phrases “freedom of conscience” and “religious liberty,” we of course assume that “freedom” and “liberty” on the one hand and “conscience” and “religious” on the other are compatible and mutually reinforcing. But there is no escaping the fact that some people place more emphasis on the one than the other, and that how you understand the meaning of freedom must shape how you understand the meaning of conscience — and vice versa.

In approaching this complex problem, we would be wise to consider the ideas of two thinkers whose views have helped shape our understanding of liberty and of conscience — John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman. Both were supporters of the notion of a freedom of religion, but their different emphases, and different paths to liberty and conscience, will help illuminate our present dilemma….

National Affairs
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