You’re just an ordinary American.  For you, church or temple is where you go to get married or buried.  Other than that, you don’t think much about it.  Life is full of other things.

But it seems like a lot of people have suddenly started talking about religious liberty.  There are dire warnings about hospitals and schools being hit with crushing fines and having to go out of business because the federal government is taking away religious liberty.   Even Investor’s Business Daily is writing about it. 

What’s going on and why should you care about religious liberty?

To start with, let’s talk infrastructure, cultural infrastructure.  Take an example.

Do you realize how much trust you put in people who are practically strangers?  Like, for instance, you give your babysitter the run of your house while you go to a movie.  When you come back, you don’t expect your diamond earrings to be gone, do you? 

Why not?  Because you assume that your babysitter is not a thief.  Fortunately, that is generally a safe assumption. 

Why is it a safe assumption?  Because chances are that somewhere in her ten to fifteen years of life, your babysitter learned that stealing is wrong, and therefore she doesn’t steal.  Even if she and her parents are complete atheists and she’s never even heard of the idea that there might be a Supreme Being, you expect her to have internalized the value that stealing is wrong.  You expect it to be part of the infrastructure of her mind, her values, her behavior.

Where does that infrastructure come from?   Trace it all the way back, and you end up with religious scriptures –known to Jews as the Torah and to Christians as the Old Testament – which include a list of Ten Commandments.  “Thou shalt not steal” is one of them, and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods” is another.

Nice rules if everybody obeys them, right?  But since not everybody obeys them, there are laws, and police, and courts, and jails.  So who needs the religion part of it? 

We all do.  Because you’re really not going to file charges against your twelve-year old babysitter on suspicion of grand larceny.   Because you expect your babysitter to refrain from stealing.

And whether she or her parents realize it, it is religion that teaches your babysitter not to steal.  Perhaps that instruction is only remote — if her parents and teachers are atheists and are living off the moral capital of previous generation and hence have not instructed her in any religion.   If your babysitter turns out to be a major league cheater when she’s in college, it’s a sign that some more of that moral capital has evaporated.

You don’t want the police to be everywhere.  You don’t want laws to be managing every little aspect of your life.  If babysitters could not be assumed to be honest, maybe the state would have to create a “Surrogate Caregiver Code” which would create an agency which would license babysitters, and you’d have to register your contract with the County Surrogate Caregiver Bureaucracy before you could go out to the movie.   Ridiculous, right?

Not very.  Think of other areas where private acts have violated the norms of the Ten Commandments.  And think about how very, very regulated, and policed, and litigated those areas now are.   

Isn’t a Surrogate Caregiver Code and Bureaucracy a logical next step if most babysitters stop knowing that stealing is wrong?  Either people are going to do the right thing for the right reason, or the government will attempt to prevent them from doing the wrong thing.  Government will invade all our freedom. 

Or, as the Father of the American Revolution, Sam Adams put it:  While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader."   (The Writings of Samuel Adams, ed., Harry Alonzo Cushing (G. P. Putman's Sons, 1908), Vol. 4, p. 124.)

When people are not virtuous there is more and more government control of everybody.  As the moral capital of the past disappears, more and more bad things happen, and human misery increases.  Moral capital must be continuously renewed in the hearts and minds of men and women.  That is one reason that society needs religion.  Renewing moral capital is a function that religion is particularly well-suited to perform. 

Religion teaches virtue — not only “thou shalt not steal” but also other moral values.  It would be a good thing for all of us if everybody had moral values.  Then people could stop themselves from doing bad things – and government wouldn’t feel it has to be to be such a big nanny.  If nothing else, police and prison budgets could be lower.

Of course, some of the moral values taught by some churches may not be very popular.  You yourself may not agree with some of them.  But they are nonetheless the moral values of the religion.  And, thanks to the First Amendment, unless those values directly contradict other core individual rights, government cannot pick and choose which parts of a religion are OK and which ones are not allowable.

Welcome to the current fight.  Right now, the Obama Administration doesn’t like the moral and ethical directives of the Catholic bishops to Catholic health care.   So HHS is saying that its policies trump Catholic teaching inside Catholic institutions. 

A lot of people in the punditocracy happen to disagree with those particular Catholic moral and ethical directives, so they’re joining the fray and claiming that the Catholic church is – guess what?—trying to impose its values on the rest of us.  Wrong.  The Catholic church is just trying to keep its hospitals and schools open for business, but people who disagree with their values can go elsewhere.

The price under the HHS Mandate of following Catholic teaching rather than Obama policy is a very stiff fine.  A fine is about the same as a tax for all practical purposes (the Obamacare decision proves that!)– and the power to tax is the power to destroy.

Hello First Amendment? The First Amendment to the Constitution made it pretty clear that government could not destroy religious institutions – even by fining them.  Yet that is what the HHS Mandate is setting out to do.  So that’s why you’re hearing about religious liberty these days.