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'Freedom of conscience': Just say you're sorry 

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  • James Madison

Now that the chorus of politicians invoking religious liberty against the president and local governments includes nearly every Republican presidential candidate, it is time to ask whether those who espouse religious liberty the most loudly believe in it least.

Put another way, WWJMD (What Would James Madison Do)?

It was Madison who insisted that both the laws of his native Virginia and the Constitution of the United States protect individuals from government alliance with any church, with religion in general or against any religion. People of many faiths had to be free to believe as they chose or not to believe at all, without state coercion.

But that is not what the sudden champions of religious liberty believe. They would not mind if the government stepped in and did a little proselytizing for Christianity or the predominant form of it in their region, which Madison, himself a deeply religious man unlike some of the other founders, thought was a dangerous thing. He wrote in his famous 1785 treatise against Virginia's proposed tax to support Christian churches that Christianity flourished best before it became aligned with the state in European countries. The European religious wars, which flowed from the alliance, helped produce the French Revolution and the religious-liberty tenet of the U.S. Constitution.

What the current disciples of religious liberty, from the raging Mike Huckabee to the milder Jeb Bush, assert is that government cannot pass laws that impinge on anyone's prejudices and superstitions if he can claim some basis in the literature of his religion. If it passes such laws, they say, anyone is free to claim a First Amendment right to ignore them.

Thus the "freedom of conscience" laws such as Arkansas's that leave people free to mistreat gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities or women or African Americans or Muslims — fire them or refuse to serve them — if the believer can cite the Bible, the Koran or another source of religious wisdom, or if they just say that the discrimination is an article of their faith.

I'm confident that Madison would say that was insane, that it was not what he, Jefferson, Mason and the rest had in mind.

The religious-freedom doctrine — what Jefferson called "separation of church and state" — came about during the Second Great Awakening, when Protestant clergymen mourned that the country was drifting away from Christianity and needed the help of government to get right with God. Madison was just as fervent about his faith but he thought it was a mistake to involve the state. So he fought the religious exactions and inserted a reference to religion in the First Amendment, after first writing a lengthier stand-alone assertion of religious liberty.

Let's depart from the theme a moment to mention the other Great Awakenings — in the 1860s when clergymen persuaded the Lincoln administration to put "In God We Trust" on Union currency in the belief that a drifting away from God was responsible for secession and the Civil War (Southerners were invoking God for their cause, citing His numerous Old Testament endorsements of slavery), and in the 1950s when Billy Graham and other clergymen persuaded the Eisenhower administration and Congress that the country was drifting toward secularism, leading among other things to the insertion of "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, written in 1892 by the socialist/Baptist Francis Bellamy and later officially adopted by the government.

The coinage and the flag are cited by conservatives as proof that the First Amendment never meant separation of church and state but state protection of religion.

The historical literature of every religion, especially Christianity and Islam, carries support for almost every form of intolerance, whether it has to do with salvation, or just clothing fashion, food preferences, feminine rights, sexual matters, farming practices, child rearing, or labor-management relations. You name it and you can probably find it in Mosaic Law. Almost any act of government potentially abrades someone's belief that they can link to some specific or imagined Biblical injunction.

Arthur, a waiter, refuses to serve a shrimp or catfish platter to customers because God will toss him into a sea of fire, according to Leviticus, where God fiercely disapproves any diet that includes shellfish and fish without scales. Arthur claims the First Amendment's religious-freedom guarantee keeps the boss from firing him. Mike Huckabee will surely come to his defense.

Ralph, a Primitive Baptist convert and a salesman in a haberdashery, refuses to sell a man a suit made of linen and wool because God forbids it in Leviticus 19:19. He says the boss can't fire him because he's exercising his freedom of conscience under the First Amendment and Arkansas statutes.

Hal is a pharmacist who refuses to dispense contraceptive pills to a woman because the Bible says often that women are subservient creatures to men and their job is to procreate and not to prevent new life.

OK, I made up those characters, but you don't have to make them up, especially when it comes to using religious freedom against women. Take Huckabee: He says the Affordable Care Act is hostile to Christianity because the government included contraceptive care among the medical procedures and medicines insurers must have in policies to be accepted in state health care exchanges. Huckabee says the government included contraception to please women who just want to satisfy their libidos and have sex without consequence.

Boys who want to have sex without consequence? That's OK. When Josh Duggar of "19 Kids and Counting" television fame was finally exposed for molesting little girls when he was a teenager, Huckabee and other Republicans, including Arkansas lawmakers, came to his defense. No punishment was warranted, they said. Josh apologized for what he did to the little girls, so we should simply forgive him and let the show go on and Josh get on with his good material life.

But what would Huckabee have said if Josh had molested little boys and if Josh and his parents were not big Huckabee supporters.

You know the answer.

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