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An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

A Matter of Conscience

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A Matter of Conscience

"Chad" on the Religion News web site made the following statement in the online comments to one of the essays by Richard Wolf, "Justices may decide if photographers can snub gay weddings." 1 Sorry I can’t give him any more credit than his screen name.

 "I don’t know how all of this should be resolved. Greater minds than mine will have to decide that.

I do hope however that we as a society will somehow thresh out a way to respect both the fundamental rights of those in the LGBTQ community and those who have issues of conscience with their lifestyle. And yes, I do believe that conscience needs to be considered in this matter. Conscience is a powerful part of who we are as a people. We had better proceed with great care when we choose to get into people’s lives in such a way that we, by edict, try to force them to violate their consciences. May God give us copious amounts of grace and truth."

I have been following the online debates on two sites and over providing services (photography, wedding cakes, rental halls, etc.) for marriages by same sex couples, along with the Hobby Lobby case over the right to deny access to certain forms of birth control on employees health care insurance policies. The debate has brought up some interesting and thought provoking comments.

On the surface one would think that people should have the freedom to do as their Conscience dictates.  We should respect the rights as Chad put it, "... of those who have issues of conscience with their (homosexual) lifestyle." The thought that you can be forced to go against your conscience is terrifying to many of us. This is after all what our American liberties are all about. However!

I pointed out in a reply to Chad that there are two important concepts here. There is a difference between:

  • Following your conscience (as many of us are doing who support same sex marriage) to stand up for the rights and freedoms of others, and

  • Following your conscience to deny the rights and freedoms of others.

Remember the story of Pinocchio and some early cartoons? There is the picture that comes to mind of a little devil sitting on one shoulder and an angel sitting on the other, one telling us what is the right (although it might be uncomfortable or difficult) thing to do and one telling us what is the wrong thing to do, (although that little Devil did his best to convince us that his way was the virtuous way)!  Another way to look at it is I don’t think the Hobby Lobby guy or the wedding photographer folks or others that claim that are being forced to violate their conscience actually are. I think their EGO is being challenged, and it is their EGO (the devilish side of their nature) not their more virtuous, angelic side that they are listening to!

In another comment a reader of the article used the phrase "legitimate beliefs." I realized that by taking some of these cases to the Supreme Court the plaintiffs are asking the court in essence to decide if their beliefs are legitimate religious beliefs and worthy of being protected  under the Free exercise clause as legitimate Religious Freedom . Do we really think that is what our Supreme Court should be or is qualified to decide what is or what isn’t a legitimate religious belief?

IF a belief is legitimate than the government can’t pass a law that would interfere with that belief. IF a belief isn’t legitimate than the law isn’t interfering with a religious belief and there is no conflict. Maybe a constitutional scholar will disagree with my argument/analysis but this is the way it seems to me and only one of the many aspects of the issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the Hobby Lobby case this week. 2 I was somewhat surprised by one or it may have been more than one of the Justices comments to the effect that he could see that the Hobby Lobby folks were sincere in their beliefs.

I thought wait a minute. Sincerity has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of this case. The Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen were sincere in their beliefs. There are some beliefs no matter how “sincere” should not be allowed to govern public policies that affect the rights of ALL people.

After I sent the initial version of this initial essay, another commentary was posted on the Religion News Service website by Cheryl B. Anderson, a Methodist minister and professor of the Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Il, “The bad theology behind opposing the contraception mandate.” 1 She makes an argument that others seem to have missed or have intentionally ignored.

She points to a passage Matthew 23:3-4:

“…but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

She points out the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case are complaining that the Affordable Care Act places a “heavy burden” on them but refuse to acknowledge that they in turn are placing a “heavy burden” on their women employees. She also says:

"Christians should not think that these legal strategies represent the best part of our faith, and other people of good will should not be fooled into thinking that the Christian majority favors gamesmanship over compassion. ... the words of Jesus warn us against placing heavy burdens on the backs of those least able to bear them."

As I thought about this commentary and the passage she cited I realized the Bible is full of other admonitions about “right” behavior that the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs have chosen to ignore:

  • Matthew 6: “Beware of practicing your piety before others, in order to be seen by them….”, “do not bear false witness” from those pesky little Ten Commandments (spreading lies and misinformation, claiming certain pills  and the IUD are abortificants when the medical profession says they aren’t)

  • Matthew 25:31 to the end of the passage -- one of my favorites: “Truly I tell you, just as you did  it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

  • The wonderful Ethic of Reciprocity or as it is called by Christians, the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I think the reverse wording of the Ethic as found in Confucius is actually better, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” With children we can see how the Christian wording seems to encourage them to be nice and encourages the expectation that they will get rewards in return for their good behavior. I think the reverse wording of Confucius forces you to really put yourself in the others place AND there is no concept of receiving a reward back, just of not getting treated badly back. (It eliminates the eye for an eye, and a tit for a tat mentality that has driven much of Christian and human morality, but this is just my opinion). The Hobby Lobby folks are claiming that others are forcing them to act against their will BUT they seem to think they can force others to act according to their will and the others against theirs. It gets confusing! I think Ms. Anderson has it right, the arguments really are BAD theology, on many counts.

In another discussion there was an argument over who is the most abusive, the anti-abortion protestors praying in front of clinics with their children at their side, or the freedom of choice supporters escorting women into the clinics.

First I pointed out to one man that it was immoral in my opinion to take children along with you to a protest, because you are using them as shields.

Then I asked him why he prays in front of clinics? Does he think that God would NOT hear him or know who he was praying for if he prayed at home or in his church? I also pointed out that Jesus -- if you can believe anything Jesus is reported to have said in the Bible is true, said:

  • Matthew 6:1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your father in heaven.”
  • Matthew 6:5: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”

Even Jesus -- if you believe what he says -- tells folks NOT to pray in public, in front of family planning clinics!

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In another discussion, one man described his wedding to his male partner and asked what is so horrible or frightening about our marriage ceremony that people feel the need to shun it, or to deny us their services in providing flowers or a cake?

I pointed out there are two issues.

  1. There are passages in the Bible that tell the Believer not to associate with sinners or they will become “polluted” by their sin:

    1 Corinthians 5: 13 “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”  

    Many see tolerance as silent approval of what they consider a sin and that their “holiness” in Gods eyes will be tainted IF they don’t show their objection to sinners. Read all of Corinthians 5. There are other passages where this same sentiment is expressed.

  2. After every natural or man-caused disaster there will be religious folk claiming that this is Gods punishment for some evil. This web site has a good discussion of this. There is the fear that If we don’t clean up our society, God will do it for us by bringing on a natural or man caused disaster, and we the “virtuous” and “righteous” ones will go down with the sinners, (be caught in the crossfire). Unfortunately this attitude leads to hate crimes, ethnic cleansing, witch trials, and unholy holy wars.

I am not endorsing either of these arguments as being valid, I simply pointed out that this is what I think is the reasoning behind the “conscience” of conservative Christians.

One last article by Jonathan Merritt was very curious. It is titled: "Setting the record straight on Jesus, "the friend of sinners':"

I didn’t realize how offensive this idea was to some fundamentalists -- that Jesus was a friend of sinners.  But then I thought about the two points I made above and realized they were expressing concern that Jesus would be tainted/polluted by the sin of sinners and even he wouldn’t have anything to do with them. Therefore they were justified in shunning/denying the unrighteous their rights or even simple courtesy or respect or tolerance.

First I pointed out that Jesus, if you can believe anything said about him, is a Perfect soul and can’t be tainted or tempted by others sins. He has proven that his Faith is stronger than sin and has raised him above all of that and that by practicing what he believes he demonstrates the goodness of his teachings and his Faith. I think others that are afraid of being tainted or polluted by the sins of others show us that their Faith isn’t quite what they claim it is. They have a lot more work to do!

Friendship, I pointed out in my online comment, is a form of Grace. As I have explained in previous essays on this web site the very concept of Grace means that it is freely given and given to all, no strings attached. You don’t have to confess your sins as one man claimed in order to get Jesus to be your friend. You don’t have to listen to what he preaches, attend the Right church, practice the Right sacraments (sprinkled rather than dunked or even be Baptized at all). You don’t have to believe the Right beliefs, accept what is offered, you don’t have to do anything. If there are strings attached then what you have from the giver is bribery or coercion, NOT Grace, and it encourages the receiver to lie or be deceitful in order to receive it. If there is any truth to the concept of Grace, whether it comes from Jesus in the form of friendship or from God in the form of salvation or from any of us in the form of friendship, respect for the rights of others (such as health care rights, rights of homosexuals) and tolerance (of differences, whatever those differences maybe), than it is freely given to ALL, saints and sinners, believers and non-believers with no strings attached.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Richard Wolf, "Justices may decide if photographers can snub gay weddings," Religion News Service, 2014-MAR-21, at:
  2. This case involves the Health and Human Services Mandate which is part of the Affordable Care Act. It requires most U.S. employers to include in their employees' health insurance plans the option for employees to obtain free contraceptives. The Act was set up so that the cost to the employer was the same, regardless of whether employees accepted or rejected the contraceptives. Some secular employers, like Hobby Lobby, want to veto the free choice of their employees on religious grounds and prevent them from exercising this option. Unfortunately, this conflict has one unintended consequence that few people are discussing. A study in St. Louis showed that the rate of unintended pregnancies can be drastically reduced by offering free contraceptives. Since over 40% of such pregnancies are terminated by abortion, free contraceptives could drastically reduce the abortion rate.

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Originally posted: 2014-MAR-26
Latest update: 2015-JUN-09
Author: Susan Humphreys

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