The political right in America seems to have decided that “religious liberty” is a banner they can rally around. With Kim Davis’s jailing, they have their first hero.
But what is this new thing we claim to value, and what are its limits? Consider a Romanian Catholic infantryman from Ohio, on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion, who receives this letter from his bishop:
Because such a moment of moral crisis has arisen for us, beloved Romanian Catholics, I must now speak to you as your bishop. Please be aware that I am not speaking to you as a theologian or as a private Christian voicing his opinion, nor by any means am I speaking to you as a political partisan. I am speaking to you solely as your bishop with the authority and responsibility I, though a sinner, have been given as a successor to the apostles on your behalf. I am speaking to you from the deepest chambers of my conscience as your bishop, appointed by Jesus Christ in his Body, the Church, to help shepherd you to sanctity and to heaven. Never before have I spoken to you in this manner, explicitly exercising the fullness of authority Jesus Christ has given his Apostles “to bind and to loose,” (cf. John 20:23), but now “the love of Christ compels” me to do so (2 Corinthians 5:14). My love for you makes it a moral imperative that I not allow you, by my silence, to fall into grave evil and its incalculable temporal and eternal consequences.
Humanly speaking, I would much prefer to keep silent. It would be far, far easier for me and my family simply to let events unfold as they will, without commentary or warning on my part. But what kind of shepherd would I be if I, seeing the approach of the wolf, ran away from the sheep (cf. John 10:12-14)? My silence would be cowardly and, indeed, sinful. I believe that Christ, whose flock you are, expects more than silence from me on behalf of the souls committed to my protection and guidance.
Therefore I, by the grace of God and the favor of the Apostolic See Bishop of the Eparchy of St. George in Canton, must declare to you, my people, for the sake of your salvation as well as my own, that any direct participation and support of this war against the people of Iraq is objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin. Beyond a reasonable doubt this war is morally incompatible with the Person and Way of Jesus Christ. With moral certainty I say to you it does not meet even the minimal standards of the Catholic just war theory.
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Thus, any killing associated with it is unjustified and, in consequence, unequivocally murder. Direct participation in this war is the moral equivalent of direct participation in an abortion. For the Catholics of the Eparchy of St. George, I hereby authoritatively state that such direct participation is intrinsically and gravely evil and therefore absolutely forbidden.
What would today’s defender of religious liberty say to this soldier? Should he quit? Should he be allowed to sit this one out? Should he be jailed for insubordination? Why, or why not?
It’s worth noting that if a government only waged just wars, this conflict would not arise. It also seems untenable to allow soldiers to abstain from certain wars based on religious convictions and still keep their jobs. (Update: Some have pointed out the U.S.’s relatively generous standards for conscientious objectors, however, that status is usually only granted to people who object in principle to all wars — the Selective Service Act is written this way — not just certain bad ones.)
I have doubts that most of the supporters of religious liberty for Kim Davis would support it in this case, but maybe I’m wrong.