Witness Protection

At Mirror of Justice, Rick Garnett links to what he thinks (and I agree) is a very insightful article by Dan Philpott criticizing Obamacare’s attack on religious freedom by mandating health coverage of items that violate Christian principles.

Philpott’s article, entitled “Why Christians Cannot Just Lighten Up Over the HHS Mandate,” points out that the mandate not only forces Christians to promote moral evil in a fairly direct way, but it also coerces them to violate the witness of their beliefs. Both are violations of religious freedom.

Some of the same moral minimalists that Philpott is rebutting, however, and maybe some people who otherwise defend religious freedom, might conclude from this argument that only “religious” organizations like Christian colleges, non-profits and charities need to be protected from the mandate, since witness to faith is really only a core concern to such groups. (Dan and Rick do not advance this view in the links provided above, but others such as Michael Sean Winters have consistently done so.)

This narrowing of religious freedom, however, is flawed and, tragically, is self-defeating. The first reason is that witness is the privilege and duty of all Christians. It is not the province of a clerical or non-profit caste who constitute “really serious” Christians as opposed to the rest of the laity. Elementary Catholic theology demonstrates this, especially since the Second Vatican Council.

But there is a more fundamental reason why religious freedom is destroyed by protecting the witness of only full-time “religious” entities. Doing so renders witness itself meaningless. Christian witness does not exist primarily for the benefit of the person engaging in the witness. Its purpose is to evangelize. Witness is not witness if it is aimed at preserving the purity of the speaker. That is pharisaism, not witness. The reason for witness is to inspire faith and discipleship in the listener. Witness is not properly aimed into a mirror.

If religious freedom merely protects institutional church organizations, their own witness would be rendered superfluous, because the state would be free to prohibit anyone from accepting the witness. If we protect the freedom to preach sermons, but let the state ban people from accepting the preacher’s message, then we not only have conceived religious freedom wrongly; we haven’t really protected the freedom to preach sermons. There is no point in preaching if we accept that discipleship can be illegal. If Jewish delis are “free” to sell kosher foods, but everyone else is required to eat non-kosher foods, Jewish delis aren’t really protected.

And so if we accept that only “religious organizations” may refrain from promoting contraception, we aren’t preserving their “witness,” because we are conceding that the rest of society (and other fellow Christians) can be coerced to promote contraception and therefore reject the witness of the few whose witness we “protected.” Self-neutered religious witness isn’t evangelism, it is a museum artifact; a caged zoo animal.

To narrow religious freedom so that it only protects the witness of church organizations but allows the state to prohibit anyone else from following that witness is to block witness from bearing its proper fruit. It is, ironically, a proposal to contracept Christian witness.

This is one reason why the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom makes it crystal clear that the Church’s own religious freedom, which is not subject to state “limits,” includes not just clerical organizations and non-profits but also the Church’s “character as a society of men who have the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith.” The laity are the Church; their religious freedom is hers. As Pope Benedict said to Catholics in Washington, D.C., “Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? … Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.”

It is right to say religious freedom must be protected to preserve Christian witness. But it is wrong to limit the freedom of witness to only a few Christians. That position destroys witness itself, because it deprives people of the freedom to embrace and follow Christian witness in the first place.

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