“Who can give it any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion? I hold it to be impracticable; and from this I infer, that its security, whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government.”
So wrote Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist, No. 84. He was speaking of one of the items proposed for a federal bill of rights, the freedom of the press. I am not thinking of that, but of a different item.
I believe we have crossed the Hamiltonian line in the defense of conscience and religious liberty.
Once upon a time, it may have been effective to put abstract guarantees of liberty of conscience and free exercise of religion in bills of rights and statutory enactments. If it was ever effective, however, it no longer is now, because terms like “conscience,” “religion,” and “liberty” have been so thoroughly vitiated.
The judgment of conscience, separated from the knowledge of natural law, is viewed as meaning feelings of indignation that anyone should dare to judge my conduct.
The duty of religion, alienated from the Creator to whom honor and obedience are due, is viewed as meaning personal eccentricities and baseless scruples in the name of which I demand special treatment.
The boon of liberty, torn asunder from the duties it empowers us to perform, is viewed as meaning getting to do what I want to.
We must not play that game.
Conscience must be protected, and yes, in the long run we must rehabilitate these compromised terms. But in the short run, we must admit that the terms are compromised, and stop using them in the laws. Statutes which do employ them will at best confuse people, and at worst backfire. They will endanger the very things they are meant to protect. For example, if I say that my conscience forbids me to give support to the killing of babies, immediately someone will say that his conscience demands compelling everyone to pitch in for “health care,” by which he means the killing of babies.
Therefore I say to lawmakers: Do not throw pearls before swine. Do not implore respect for such things as “conscience,” “religion,” or “liberty” from people who have no idea what these terms means. Yes, find ways to protect authentic conscience and religious liberty – scarcely anything could be more important. But find ways to do so without using the terms. Do not forbid abstract categories of acts; forbid acts.
This will require that evils be targeted more closely. For example, one of the greatest contemporary threats to genuine conscience is that health care workers can be required to take part in abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. Forego the word “conscience.” Simply propose that no one may be required or commanded to take innocent human life, or to participate formally in its taking. The same approach may be taken toward attempts to coerce people to commit other evils.
Such a law will be difficult to enact and even more difficult to sustain, but may mean a great deal. In our favor is the fact that even though the people no longer understand what conscience is, they still have consciences -- and they do still understand what killing is.