Conscience in the shadow of the State

  • by:
  • 08/21/2022

Wednesday marks the official implementation of the Health and Human Services mandates that will force employers to begin providing contraceptive benefits, including abortifacients, under their insurance plans, even if they have religious objections.  Such objections are no longer officially relevant; they have been over-ruled by the superior wisdom of the State, along with entirely secular objections that people should buy their own birth control.

This happens as restaurant chain Chick-fil-A is fighting a battle against thuggish elected officials in several states, because the CEO of the company, Dan Cathy, exercised his free speech rights to express politically incorrect support for traditional marriage.  No other pretext is offered for these actions against Chick-fil-A, which range from vague threats, to specific pledges to damage their business through the exercise of government power.  Chick-fil-A stands accused of no ???discrimination??? or illegal behavior.  They are to be punished because certain politicians have decreed that support for same-sex marriage is mandatory.

Supporters of the First Amendment have chosen Wednesday for a ???Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,??? and there are reports of massive crowds thronging some of their restaurants.  If we???re going to ponder the increasing difficulty of respecting religious conscience in the shadow of a massive, all-encompassing State, we might as well do it on a full stomach.

Government is compulsion.  Its growth crowds out all other authorities.  As greater amounts of compulsive force are directed at the populace, the level of acceptable dissent necessarily diminishes.  There are fewer ???acceptable??? reasons to say ???no??? when the State tells us we must do something, and the list of things it wishes to make us do is growing.  Statists are well pleased with the side effect of introducing more opportunities to wield power by granting special waivers and exceptions to favored allies.  The process is normally slow and inexorable, but we have lately seen it take some large and ominous steps.

The offense to religious conscience in the case of ObamaCare???s contraceptive mandates is straightforward enough.  But the gay marriage controversy has, perhaps inevitably, grown into another example of centralized, coercive power deployed to impose an officially favored viewpoint upon dissenters.

I personally believe in the importance of recognizing and venerating traditional marriage, for non-religious reasons.  Many supporters of traditional marriage proceed on the basis of religious belief.  It???s easy to see that marriage is linked to religious tradition for a sizable portion of our population.  These beliefs are not a new phenomenon.  That doesn???t automatically render them above challenge, but it???s silly to pretend that traditional marriage is not a very old institution ??? the beginning point for a debate that will, if same-sex marriage proponents carry the day, result in a significant cultural change.

Those same-sex marriage advocates have already enjoyed tremendous success in implementing such a change.  A well-documented shift in public attitudes toward gay marriage has occurred.  Few cultural movements could claim to have accomplished so much, so quickly.

But we seem to have arrived at an impasse.  Even President Obama???s high-profile embrace of gay marriage came with the qualifier that he thinks the matter should be settled state-by-state??? and when it???s addressed this way, with the public asked to vote upon the issue, traditional marriage almost always wins.

It may not always be so ??? given more time, perhaps more people will change their minds.  It???s not easy to assess the playing field for such a heated social debate in a dispassionate manner, because so many of us have strong views on one side or the other, but I think the limits of solid opposition to gay marriage have been reached.  As mentioned, a good deal of that opposition is rooted in religious faith and firmly-held tradition, which are not easy to overcome.  Leaving the question of whether changing these attitudes is right or wrong, the process of changing them seems to have slowed to a crawl, if not a halt, for the time being.

That???s where debate ends, and compulsion begins.  Private-sector compulsive tactics ??? boycotts, denouncing traditional marriage supporters as ???homophobes??? ??? are Constitutionally unobjectionable, but they lead naturally into the abuse of government power deployed against Chick-fil-A.  Both proceed from the assertion that only support for same-sex marriage can be expressed with good will ??? the case for traditional marriage is portrayed as inherently malevolent, unfit for discussion among decent people.  That???s the notion Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel expressed when he described Chick-fil-A as incompatible with ???Chicago values,??? which are somehow expansive enough to include anti-Semite and aggressive gay marriage opponent Louis Farrakhan.

In short, there is an effort to move this stalled debate by ending the ???debate,??? and imposing the notion that one side has been ruled completely out of order.  Conscientious objection to gay marriage, whether founded in religion or not, is said to be impossible.  And while liberals have strenuously objected to perceived conservative attempts to ???legislate morality??? for decades, power naturally flows in accordance with popular moral consensus.  If Dan Cathy???s views are portrayed as a ???hate crime,??? it???s only natural that some officials will seek to exploit the political opportunity presented by ???prosecuting??? that crime.

Some wish the government could be extricated from the business of marriage altogether, removing every vestige of coercion and restoring the fullest measure of freedom to the debate.  That would be extremely difficult to do, as the concept of ???marriage??? is rooted deeply into the government at all levels.  The State will have to become much smaller before it backs completely away from brides and grooms.  And even if this could be done, it wouldn???t be long before some small business decided to offer a special benefit for ???married couples,??? claimed by someone who didn???t fit their definition of marriage, and the government once again became involved in some capacity.

Years ago, a consensus in favor of civil unions seemed to be taking shape.  I always thought it silly to assert that consenting adults could not form respectable legal arrangements because of their sexual orientation.  Not many people were all that energetic about preventing them from doing so.  But now we are debating the essential meaning of a powerful idea, with all of its associated traditions, rather than a few aspects of contract law.  The power of this idea is readily apparent to both sides.  There???s only one way to win such a debate quickly and easily: force the other side to shut up.  The call for official intervention grows louder, and politicians have very keen ears for such cries.

That???s why personal conscience withers in the shadow of the State, which is always eager to pass judgment on which ambitions and values are legitimate.  ???Tolerance??? is heartwarming to discuss, but the ability to decide what is unworthy of tolerance is where real power can be found.