Should Christians Be Wary of Conscience Talk?


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ABSTRACTShould Christians Be Wary of Conscience Talk? | First Things Home Visit the Home Page Print Edition Current Edition Previous Edition Archive Subscribe On the Square Latest Feature Archive Blogs Evangel Secondhand Smoke First Thoughts Postmodern Conservative Events Coming Events Recent Events Advertising Advertise on First Things Donate Support First Things About Us Masthead ROFTERS Contact Us Submissions Store Shop First Things Buy The Creed Subscribe Subscribe Customer Service Search First Things 2012 Jan Feb Mar Apr May 2011 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2010 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2009 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2008 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2007 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2006 Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec 2005 Sep Oct Nov Dec 1969 Dec Should Christians Be Wary of Conscience Talk? Mar 2, 2012 Nathaniel Peters Does freedom of conscience lead to a naked public square? When religious people try to protect their own rights of conscience, does this undermine their ability to advance their convictions publicly? In responding to the recent HHS mandate for religious employers to provide contraception and abortifacients, religious groups and individuals have argued that their rights of conscience trump any potential desire of their employees for these medications. Their private religious convictions about contraception and abortion prevent them from taking these actions, and under the First Amendment they cannot be coerced to violate those convictions. However, these religious people are not trying to be only privately religious. They have convictions about abortion and contraception�and immigration, economic justice, and war, for that matter�that they want to argue in public and legislate. And they ground these convictions not only in their own religious teachings, but in the natural law and public reason. They seek to live their religion privately and to advance and act on its claims publicly. But, in the HHS case, if they frame the debate not about the rightness or wrongness of abortion and contraception, but of private religious convictions, doesn�t that knock the public foundation out from under those claims? Doesn�t it make religious teaching about abortion and contraception�or, in another case, any other issue of public import�just a matter of private religious conviction, like dietary laws or smoking peyote? Recently, Patrick Deneen made such an argument: By these appeals to the �rights� of religious organizations to hold certain religious beliefs�whatever those may be�and by an appeal to �conscience� informing that belief�no matter what it may hold�critics of the HHS policy have framed their response in the dominant privatistic language of liberalism. Their defense rests on the inscrutability and sanctity of private religious belief. It borrows strongly from sources of private religious devotion that lays no claim to public witness, in keeping with liberalism�s dominant mode of allowing acceptable religious practice so long as it remains outside the public square. The wider problem, as Deneen sees it, is with liberalism itself, which cordons off religious convictions from the public square. According to liberalism, religion is fine, so long as it is private, and its arguments about final ends and goods are permitted as long as they are not forced on others. But, Deneen notes, The Catholic faith is, by definition, not �private�; it involves a conception of the human Good that in turn requires efforts to instantiate that understanding in the world. As such, Catholics represent a threat to the liberal order, which demands that people check their faith at the door and acknowledge only one sovereign in the realm of proscribing public behavior�the State. Framing the argument over the HHS mandate in these liberal terms of religious freedom, Deneen concludes, gives the argument a chance of being heard. However, �it should be acknowledged (as the response to the �Compromise� reveals) that the Church will ultimately lose the argument simply due to the fact that the way it is framed already represents a capitulation to liberal premises.� This is so because �the real debate is not over religious freedom, in fact: it is over the very nature of humanity and the way in which we order our polities and societies.� In so arguing, Deneen accepts the current administration�s definition of liberalism. This concedes more than it needs to. Yes, liberalism makes a distinction between the private, free exercise of religion and the government�s endorsement of a particular faith. But there is a historical difference between toleration and religious liberty, even if we sometimes use the two terms interchangeably today. Toleration puts up with minority religious believers because it is more c.......