I’m not fond of Nazi analogies. They’re usually hyperbolic, and many are too fast and loose with connections to the rise of Hitler and…fill in the blank with an oppressive government action that outrages you. So, when I pull from my memory a story related to the rise of Naziism, it’s not a reflexive argument for me. It’s one I try to avoid.
Nonetheless, the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who, if the government has its way, will have to sign a piece of paper authorizing other health providers to offer contraceptives and abortifacients their conscience won’t allow them to support, has me remembering an anecdote from Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler, a memoir of coming of age in Germany during the rise of Naziism. Haffner was in a law office, studying in the library, when a disturbance broke the quiet:
What was the first noticeable noise? A door banging? A distant sound like an order being given? Suddenly everybody raised their heads and strained to hear what it was. The room was still utterly quiet: but the quality of the silence had changed. It was no longer the silence of concentrated work. It was filled with alarm and agitation. There was a clatter of footsteps outside in the corridor, the sound of rough boots on the stairs, then a distant indistinct din, shouts, doors banging.
Someone eventually explained what was happening. The S.A. was in the building, demanding that the Jews among the lawyers and clerks leave. Eventually, the brown-shirted intruders reached the library and shouted that “non-Aryans” must leave immediately.
Haffner, his heart beating “heavily,” wondered what to do and tried to concentrate on his work, reading some law briefs. But a brown shirt came up to him at his worktable and demanded:
“Are you Aryan?” Before I had a chance to think, I said, “yes.” He took a close look at my nose–and retired. The blood shot to my face. A moment too late I felt the shame, the defeat. I had said “Yes!” Well, in God’s name, I was indeed an “Aryan.” I had not lied, I had allowed something much worse to happen. What a humiliation, to have answered the unjustified question as to whether I was “Aryan” so easily, even if the fact was of no importance to me! What a disgrace to buy, with a reply, the right to stay with my documents in peace! I had been caught unawares, even now. I had failed my very first test.
The Little Sisters of the Poor know that to buy the right to continue their work by signing the government’s form will be more than a disgrace. For them, it will be a sin. Others might not think so. Others might think it ridiculous to claim that the prosaic action of providing contraceptive coverage for employees is anything as poetic as sin. But the Little Sisters of the Poor think differently. And it is their conscience that has the right to speak…or in this case, not to speak, not to sign the form the government insists they sign in order to be free of decimating fines and be able to continue their mission.
J.E. Dyer has done a wonderful job of laying out the details of this case and demonstrating how important this seemingly small compulsion by the government is. As Haffner demonstrates in his story, how easy it is to answer “unjustified” questions! How many of us wouldn’t have done as he did? But by giving in, by answering, by placing one’s signature on a seemingly meaningless piece of paper (shockingly, the government’s own argument is that the paper is meaningless!) one gives the government the power to continue unjustified requirements that might, in the future, violate others’ consciences. It allows the government to determine what sin should mean to you and me.
Liberal defenders of the government’s actions cry “War on Women!” and suggest that religious people who don’t want to underwrite contraception or abortifacients for their employees are somehow foisting their faith views on others (when, of course, the reverse is true). National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke has a good round-up of the preposterous arguments here. Let me add this one, that I’ve heard from liberal friends–that we shouldn’t be allowing all these conscience objections to reasonable pragmatic policies because it’s a “slippery slope.”
But there’s another slippery slope that liberals have no problem sliding down. That is, a slope where conscience objections become less relevant, where citizens are not encouraged to think for themselves, to weigh wrongs and rights, to realize, as Haffner did, that the big challenges of conscience can be found in simple answers to simple questions that at first appear unremarkable, or at least, nonthreatening. The S.A. officer, after all, didn’t ask “Will you let us kill all the Jews?” He only asked if Haffner himself was not Jewish.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is defending the Little Sisters of the Poor. In his excellent volume on First Amendment Issues, The Right to Be Wrong, Becket Fund founder Kevin Seamus Hasson talks about the “slippery slope” so many liberals seem to fear with these conscience objections. Hasson wrote:
“A government that seeks to minimize the consciences of its citizens may well find itself, in a generation or two, in a predicament far worse than having too many principled people claiming too many points of conscience. It may find itself with too few principled people to sustain a society.”
That’s the slippery slope liberals and conservatives should worry about. The one that leads to a society with too many people willing to follow orders unthinkingly.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.