Taxing conscience one war at a time
In the most recent flare-up of the culture wars, the White House sparred with bishops, nuns and other Catholic leadership over a plan to require religiously based hospitals, schools and charities to include contraception coverage in all employees’ health plans. The backlash prompted a revision that shifted to insurance companies the responsibility to arrange for the coverage and pay for it.
The Vatican views opposition to contraception as a pro-life stand, but Catholics who are actually in a position to live this out disagree. According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of all Catholic women up to age 44 who have had sex have used contraception. It appears that contraception is an issue of conscience for celibate Catholic clergy, but rarely for the laity.
Nevertheless, a religious institution should not be compelled to fund a practice it deplores. Nor should any individual. And that is where a wider principle is at stake.
The debate over contraception revealed widespread agreement that the law needs to respect the position of conscience held by the Catholic Church. However, this logic is not extended to religious pacifists’ payment of taxes for war.
In contrast to the Catholic laity’s lack of regard for their church’s teaching on contraception, surely fewer than 98 percent of peace-church members are conscientiously comfortable with funding the Pentagon. Our tax dollars buy nuclear weapons, pay for basic training programs designed to overwhelm a green recruit’s natural instinct not to kill another human being, and finance a war on terrorism that best resembles making something taste less salty by adding more salt.
War-tax resisters and advocates of a peace-tax fund have been preaching this message of conscience for decades, from a pulpit far smaller than that enjoyed by Catholic bishops. Most Anabaptists would not directly pay for someone to train for years, fly halfway around the world and then kill someone, but we do it indirectly every day through our taxes.
The bishops were quickly joined by a chorus of support, including politicians desiring to be known as defenders of faith in a “war on religion.” Protestants and Jews spoke out, fearing a slippery slope that might infringe upon their own religious beliefs. Rick Warren, the nationally influential pastor of Saddleback Church in California, tweeted, “I’d go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do. Would you? Acts 5:29.”
Religious pacifists might reply: We’ve been here a while; welcome to the club.
If government regulations can accommodate the Catholic Church on a teaching ignored by the vast majority of its followers, shouldn’t those who object to paying for war receive similar consideration for a belief that is a bedrock of our faith?
With contraception, there is broad consensus that no one should be compelled to act against his or her moral convictions. If only the law applied that principle to all matters of conscience.
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