Obamacare’s anti-conscience mandate has raised many questions about freedom. One of them is whether religious liberty is only for individuals or also for institutions.
America’s founders thought that the Constitution’s “first freedom” is for both, a view backed up by the U.S. Supreme Court as well as numerous federal and state statutes.
Why is religious liberty important for institutions? Because of our relational nature as humans.
We are relational beings at our core. Everyone exists in some form of relationship to others. In fact, we become who we are—we develop our own unique habits and views—in the context of these relationships. We need to think of ourselves and others not merely as self-standing individuals but as persons in community.
There is something deep within human nature that prompts us to seek out membership in communities of purpose—to desire to be on the inside of a meaningful group and to participate in something larger than oneself. This “quest for community,” as Robert Nisbet calls it, plays out largely through social institutions.
In their essence, institutions are structured relationships. They are habits of activity that bind people together in a common purpose through time.
Schools bring people together to engage in teaching and learning. Hospitals bring people together around the purposes of healing and health. Businesses coordinate work activity toward a common productive goal. Churches bind members together to worship and follow God.
All of these institutions facilitate joint, fundamental activities and relationships of human life. We live and move and accomplish basic needs in institutions. Through institutions, we gain a sense of connection with the larger social realities of life. We form and express our identity through institutions. As relational beings, that’s how we’re wired.
True liberty must take account of the relational aspect of human nature. And true religious liberty, in particular, must entail the freedom to exercise one’s faith in the various relationships and joint activities of day-to-day life. In other words, religious freedom applies to participation in institutions.
Each one of those institutions—our particular school, church, workplace, etc.—takes on a certain culture or identity. And that identity is shaped in large part by the values, beliefs, and habits of its members. A school might follow a particular dress code; a church follows certain standards of behavior or worship; a place of work sets certain working conditions and provides certain employee benefits. All of these particular value-laden marks of an institution help to form its identity and accomplish the tasks for which it was formed. And since participation in institutions is basic to human life, true freedom includes the ability to form and shape, enter and leave institutions that reflect our deepest values and convictions.
Historically, the Judeo-Christian tradition has understood this relational aspect of being human and emphasized the communal nature of faith. In fact, the Latin root of religion is religio, meaning “to bind.” Religious communities and institutions bind people vertically to God and horizontally to one another. And they play a significant role in human life and society—in terms of not only spiritual fulfillment or self-realization but also addressing social challenges and sustaining democratic order.
For example, faith-based institutions like religious schools, hospitals, and charities often provide loving forms of assistance and care that government programs simply cannot offer. Furthermore, America’s founders asserted that religious institutions are important for fostering the virtues necessary for self-government.
As Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, argues, religious freedom must protect “the work of faith-based non-profits and other institutions,” for it is often through them that “people of faith put their convictions into action in the world.”
Sadly, Obamacare’s anti-conscience mandate threatens the freedom of not only individuals but also institutions. The mandate strips from employers the freedom to structure their institutions in line with their convictions about health care. That can strip such institutions of their very identity and thwart their effective role in society.
The anti-conscience mandate needs to be revoked, and Obamacare as a whole needs to be repealed and replaced with true health care reform that protects robust religious liberty—for individuals as well as institutions.