Understanding American Liberty

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Understanding American Liberty

Dec 19th, 2012 5 min read
Jennifer A. Marshall

Vice President Institute for Family, Community & Opportunity

Jennifer A. Marshall oversees research into a variety of issues that determine the strength and character of American society.

In June 2012, the Hollywood film For Greater Glory, starring Andy Garcia, appeared in U.S. theaters. The movie tells the story of the Cristero War in Mexico in the late 1920s, a popular rebellion against the Mexican government's efforts to throttle religious freedom in order to secularize post-revolutionary Mexican society. In the savage clash that followed, Catholic priests and nuns were executed for practicing their faith, some were even tortured and hanged from telephone poles. It is estimated 90,000 Mexicans lost their lives during the Cristero insurrection. 

Today, unjust imprisonment and bloodshed continues to mark the absence of religious freedom around the globe. In Iran, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was imprisoned and sentenced to death for allegedly converting from Islam to Christianity. The pastor continues to confess Christianity, though he denies ever professing Islam. Nadarkhani spent 1,000 days in jail, his life hanging in the balance, with the Iranian regime poised to put him to death at any moment.

In Pakistan, spring 2012 marked the grim anniversary of the assassination of two leaders who had promoted religious freedom. Salman Taseer, Governor of the Punjab Province, was killed January 4, 2011, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of the Pakistani cabinet, was murdered two months later. Both had spoken on behalf of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman condemned to death under blasphemy laws that, as with Pastor Nadarkhani, make conversion from Islam a crime.

In China, the government forced worshippers of the Shouwang church out of its property during the 2011 Easter season and put its pastor under house arrest. The congregation has met outdoors through every season since, with members occasionally detained by police when they try to meet. Like many others, Shouwang is an unregistered "house church" that has refused to comply with government oversight of its church affairs.

Authoritarian governments - whether religious or secular - have long sought to curb or even to extinguish religious liberty. On the other hand, the limited American government established by our Constitution respects the institutions of our civil society - including, especially, religious institutions. The American Founders believed that strong religious congregations and vibrant faith communities were essential to ordered liberty. As a result, Americans have long enjoyed the fullest religious liberty in the world, and we have reaped the benefits of a flourishing civil society rooted in that religious freedom. 

Compared to the Founding era, more and more power is now being centralized in the national government. Today, for example, many policies that affect local public schools are made in Washington. As creeping centralization slowly overcomes the Constitution's federal design, the national government has begun to restrict the freedom of religion that is an indispensable element of the American founding.

These restrictions are, thankfully, not like the violent assaults on religious liberty in places like Iran, Pakistan, and China. But just as a homeowner should be concerned about the security of his home's foundation before a river spills over its banks, so we should beware the danger of erosion in the foundation of American freedom. By imposing a judgment where it ought to respect religious liberty, the overreaching government threatens the freedom of all religious communities.

One of the most sweeping centralizations of power in U.S. history came with President Obama's health care overhaul in 2010, often referred to as "Obamacare." The law prescribes what patients must buy, what insurers must offer, and what kind of health care coverage employers must cover. It offers no way out.

The massively complex 2,700-page law will require thousands more pages of regulation to implement in the coming years. One of the first rules issued under Obamacare came in August 2011, when the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Kathleen Sebelius, proposed requiring nearly all insurance plans to cover - at no cost to the insured - abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization.

Many Americans are deeply troubled by abortion-inducing drugs, such as the morning-after pill - what some call "emergency contraception." Others object on religious grounds to the use of contraception. Yet in its final rule, issued in February 2012, the Obama Administration offered just the narrowest of exemptions, shielding only houses of worship from the state's requirements that violate their conscience. Religious employers - such as Catholic hospitals, Christian schools, and faith-based soup kitchens - do not qualify for the exemption and will have to provide the abortion-inducing drugs to which they object. Failing to comply with the mandate will result in massive fines.

The rule provoked intense, widespread, and sustained opposition from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups, as well as others.

Now that the Supreme Court has allowed Obamacare to stand, the full weight of the massive health care law will begin to press on American's freedoms. One of the first places that will be felt is on religious liberty as the HHS mandate on abortion drugs and contraception undermines the rights of countless employers and individuals to choose health plans that align with their moral and religious beliefs. As the coercive mandate's enforcement continues, so too will more than 20 federal lawsuits against the rule, as dozens of organizations, businesses, and individuals demand the respect of their first freedom.

In the controversy over the Obamacare mandate, some of the clearest arguments on religious liberty have come from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops have argued not simply for an expanded exemption from the anti-conscience mandate that would cover their religious ministries. They urge an end to the mandate altogether, since it imposes inappropriately on the freedom of conscience of all Americans. Special exemptions are inadequate. When a policy threatens religious liberty, it often threatens freedom more generally. It shows that the government has outgrown its limits and is placing the foundations of American society at risk.

A similar principle should apply when the U.S. promotes religious liberty abroad. Diplomacy, and the international spotlight, may succeed in saving the life of an individual at mortal risk for their religious beliefs. Thankfully, that has been the case so far for Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran and Asia Bibi in Pakistan.

Such active diplomacy bolsters the United States' powerful model of religious freedom and is crucial to America's role in the world. But it is also inadequate. The United States should press all governments to recognize the universal right of religious liberty. Religious freedom should be the rule for all, not the exception enjoyed by a majority, or the privilege of a deserving individual saved by American leadership.

Religious freedom requires that the government does not interfere with religious faith and the charitable works it inspires. If a government is truly limited, friction with religious institutions and individuals will be rare. Of course, occasionally, tensions between faith and state may arise even under a limited government. The Founders counted on these tensions to keep the state in check.

When the American government and religion clash regularly, the problem is the rise of the unlimited state, a problem that endangers the foundations of American society. The conflict between faith and state in the U.S. is civil, not - thankfully - violent, as it is elsewhere around the world. But our conflicts are civil because of the order we established under the Constitution. The best way to preserve social and religious peace in America is to respect the constitutional order, and ensure that government remains limited.

"There is a limit to what government can compel us to do or not do, particularly in matters of faith and conscience," Dr. Laura Champion, medical director of Calvin College's Health Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said in congressional testimony against Obamacare's anti-conscience mandate in 2012. "It is in the best interest of all Americans, of every ideological stripe, that this limit, this line, not be crossed."

Understanding American freedom today means recognizing that, while limited government is essential to securing liberty, a government that is big enough to cross any line is big enough to take liberty away.

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