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Religious Liberties and Moral Ambiguities - The Cases of Contraception and War Resistance

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The Senate rejected the Blunt amendment, which would have allowed employers to deny healthcare coverage to their employees for contraception or any other "morally objectionable" service. The failed amendment --to a highway bill in this case -- appeared on the heels of the recent controversies with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops over the federal mandate to provide contraception for women in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.

I am reminded of another religious liberties case that I was involved in 1981. I reflect on this now because it demonstrates the limits of religious liberties and the challenge of making moral judgments. A recent college graduate at the time, I was hired to work on nuclear disarmament by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers. While not a Christian pacifist, I believed then, as I do now, that nuclear weapons are incompatible with any possible construal of the just war theory. By their very nature, nuclear weapons cause indiscriminate loss of human life. I decided, as a symbolic act of civil disobedience, to withhold a portion of my federal income tax in protest. With my tax return, I enclosed a letter explaining my actions to the IRS and copied my senators and representatives. I was a war tax resister.

Young and idealistic, perhaps foolish, I also had no illusions. I knew the money would eventually be collected with interest and penalties. I also knew that the portion of taxes that I did pay went into the same treasury and could not be segregated to appease my conscience. Indeed, I was not particularly interested in having a clear conscience on the matter, as if that mattered in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. I was interested in changing foreign and military policy.

(It is worth noting that two years later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops articulated basically same position I held in their May 3, 1983 Pastoral Letter on War and Peace.)

What happened? The IRS attempted to garnish my meager wages. The Religious Society of Friends -- my employer -- was prepared to challenge the IRS on First Amendment grounds -- whether the government could compel a church to act as an arm of enforcement in violation of an employee's conscience and their own convictions. In the end, the IRS attached my bank account, so nothing came of the brewing court case.

The right of religious persons and groups to abstain from practices that go against their conscience is not absolute. The Supreme Court has ruled that you cannot claim a religious exception to a "law of general application," if the law was in no way intending to single out that religion. On the other hand, the Courts also recognizes that churches are different than other organizations, for instance in the necessity of discriminating against who they hire.

Our legal system protects disfavored religious viewpoints, but our political system must seek pragmatic compromises on issues of public policy. The latter turns out to be near impossible in the zero-sum competition between the two parties in our now permanent election cycle.

Like many, including the majority of Catholics and the majority of Republicans, I have no moral problem with birth control. Indeed, I think it a moral obligation to make contraception available to women (and men), in no small part to prevent the tragedy of unwanted pregnancies and the necessity of even considering abortions.

What I have come to recognize is that morality is often a muddle of conflicting goods -- in my case, the moral obligation to resist preparations for nuclear holocaust versus the societal obligation to pay taxes and resist totalitarian regimes. In the case of birth control and abortion, the conflict is between the potential life of a child versus a woman's liberty to control her body, prevent unwanted pregnancies, and if necessary terminate a pregnancy.

This does not make me a moral relativist. It is pretty much universally the case that people everywhere prefer health over sickness, freedom over slavery, prosperity over poverty, education over ignorance, empowerment over powerlessness, pleasure over pain, justice over injustice, and living over dying. Missing from the list are three other universal preferences; humans prefer belonging over isolation, meaning over meaninglessness, and certainty over uncertainty. The latter mean that we often rebel against moral ambiguities and cognitive dissonance. What we disagree about are the weighing and interpretation of these values, but generally not about the basic principles. How do we decide when these universal preferences conflict with each other in actual life as they necessarily do? We cannot maximize all goods simultaneously.

We live in a society and in a world that often does not allow simple moral decisions between right and wrong. Morality is always a muddle of conflicting goods. We make moral compromises daily. And to some extent, even the best of us are all hypocrites in some cosmic ledger, especially in winner-take-all contests, like our now permanent election cycle, in which Machiavellian calculations of expediency dominate.

But our political system must seek principled and pragmatic compromises on issue of public policy. We do society and ourselves a dangerous disservice when we frame these moral and political muddles as black and white struggles between evil and righteous. Liberty is never absolute. Morality is never simply good. Greater nuance would make for better politics, better religion, and better people.