There’s a growing consensus on the Left regarding religious exemptions: namely, that they’re absurd. “Dump COVID vaccine religious exemptions—there is no Church of Moderna Disbelievers,” declares the editorial board at the Los Angeles Times. There have been similar op-eds at MSNBC and Wired.
But it’s not just frustration with resistance to the vaccine mandates. In a 29 September op-ed for the Washington Post, Kate Cohen decries the ability of Americans to claim a religious exemption to the equal opportunity clause, to the contraceptive coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act, and to the requirement that a child be immunized to attend public school. “This seems crazy,” Cohen declares.
Thus Cohen’s “novel” solution: “If religious people can opt out of secular laws they find sinful, then maybe the rest of us should be able to opt out of religious laws we find immoral.” For example, she explains, anti-abortion laws are “religious laws,” and thus persons who are not religious should be able to exempt themselves from them. “Let’s call it a rational exemption,” she explains. “Rational exemptions could be used for religion-based laws with which people strongly, sincerely disagree. For example, a law that values the life of a quarter-inch embryo more than the life of a person carrying that embryo. That’s clearly a religious law.”
Cue the anti-Christian and anti-Catholic bigotry. One letter praising Cohen’s op-ed declared “What a wonderful notion: to give rational folks the same benefit of the doubt as religious folks…. When you stop to think about it, it does seem odd that anyone would feel the need to write an opinion piece in defense of being rational.” A few weeks later, a political cartoon by Michael de Adder titled “Separation of church and the state of Texas” portrayed the five Catholic Supreme Court Justices—Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito—as priests in the confessional, hearing the confession of a personified Department of Justice. The message was obvious: the opinions of Catholic judges are tainted (and thus delegitimized) by their religious beliefs.
The first problem with all of this is the anti-Christian trope that opinions that are in any way influenced by one’s religious beliefs are less legitimate than those based on secular rationality. For starters, there is no uniform “secular rationality,” either in America or anywhere else. As Alasdair MacIntyre expertly argues in his classic After Virtue, hundreds of years (and thousands of philosophers) after the Enlightenment, we are no closer to any consensus on the nature and contents of truth, being, or life’s meaning. Even a purely secular regime would be an irreconcilable mess of utilitarianism, positivism, materialism, nihilism, Freudianism, Marxism, postmodernism, and deconstructionism, among other systems. Indeed, even in the esoteric world of secular academia, philosophers are constantly accusing each other of irrationality.
Thus “secular reason” is an emperor without any clothes. What such a regime amounts to is simply what every individual person—be it Kate Cohen, Michael de Adder, or anyone else—thinks and feels is right at any given time (i.e., emotivism). Moreover, most people are motivated by a confluence of ideas and beliefs that draw on a variety of philosophical systems, some of whose premises are often in direct contradiction with one another (ahem, Catholic libertarians). Perhaps every law should have to explain the underlying presuppositions behind it!
Secondly, Cohen and company wrongly presume that any political opinion influenced by religion is de facto irrational. That’s a bit rich, given that it was the Catholic Church more than any other institution in human history that has taught the world how to reason. It’s also decidedly wrong. Plenty of pro-life advocates have articulated anti-abortion arguments employing logic and science (it’s not terribly difficult, given that a human embryo is the living offspring of two human persons and that its heart starts beating three weeks after fertilization). There’s also the inconvenient fact that there are many pro-life atheists and secularists, like Kelsey Hazzard.
What this amounts to is a “new” secular American anti-Catholicism, though broadened to target all people of Christian faith. Quotation marks are required because these anti-Catholic sentiments are just as irrational, absurd, and bigoted as those popular in eighteenth and nineteenth century America, which viewed Catholics as an existential threat to the Republic. Cohen even goes so far as to call laws banning interracial marriage “religious,” a claim that is risible given that such codes were endorsed by the leading secular scientists and thinkers of earlier generations not on the grounds of the Bible or theology but on Social Darwinism. Yet for Cohen, laws that seek to curb transgenderism’s influence on athletics or education are attempts to coerce America “into alignment with a first-century moral code.” Or perhaps an expression of some of the most basic biological and philosophical truths about the human person?
I must, however, admit that opponents of religious exemptions are on to something when they express consternation with religious exemptions. For such laws, which can be traced to the preeminent prioritization of religious freedom in our nation’s First Amendment, are predicated on an understanding of religion as objectively beneficial to the polis. But what religion? The Framers were notoriously silent on this in the Constitution, in part because theirs was a fairly uniform society. Though there were among the Founding generation men of unorthodox and even non-Christian sympathies, they all still inhabited an America intellectually and culturally operating under certain Christian principles.
That America is no longer with us. Thus, the Supreme Court’s famous assertion in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892) that there exist “a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation” is now more of a historical relic than an accurate description of our zeitgeist. According to a Gallup poll released earlier this year, less than half of Americans belong to a religious congregation, a trend of irreligiosity that is likely to grow. As those identifying as “nones” increase, it thus seems probable that those holding anti-religious opinions will engage in progressively more aggressive attacks on religious freedom. Will the non-sectarian First Amendment and her Federalist Society interpreters be sufficient to protect Catholics and other Christians? I confess, I am not optimistic.
[Image Credit: Michael de Adder/The Washington Post]