The Immoral Order and the Limits of Authority

“[It is] an immoral order, and by the Articles of War, I am not bound to follow it!” – Col. Robert G. Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick), Glory

If you’ve seen the movie Glory, you may recall the above scene. Shaw and his troops (the 54th – a division of black union soldiers) have been placed under the command of Col. Montgomery. They plunder the undefended city of Dorien, GA, and Montgomery orders the city burned to the ground. Shaw protests that, though Montgomery is in command, Shaw and his troops are not obliged to follow immoral orders.

The concept of immoral orders casts authority in its proper, derivative context. That is, a person or institution may well have authority over you at a given time and for a given reason, but there is a greater authority to which we all must answer. If an order from earthly authority demands that you violate the commands of heavenly authority, then you have to think long and hard (and in the light of eternity) about what you will do.

This is the standard sort of “litmus test” that Christians will apply to 1 Peter 2:13-14

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.

If the verse literally meant to submit to earthly governance in all things, then a command slaughter the defenseless, or rape and pillage would have to be obeyed under the auspices of “it’s in the Bible”. Christians clearly don’t ascribe to such a doctrine. For one thing, adherence to such a doctrine would have eliminated the church long ago – on more than one occasion (including the book of Acts) Christianity has been outlawed by various earthly authorities.

I bring up this mild foray into Christian theology because of new federal mandates regarding medical coverage. The Department of Health and Human Services has dictated that employers, including catholic hospitals and universities, have to provide coverage for birth control and abortions – both of which violate catholic teaching. The mandate apparently also applies to health insurance offered by catholic charities. (This is only slightly less offensive than a prior dictum in which “conscientious objectors” were commanded to perform abortions. I believe cooler, more constitutional heads prevailed that time, and the order never went through. I’ll double check though.)

The mandate presents several problems, with varying levels of despotism.

At the simplest (and least offensive) level is the notion that the government has any right whatsoever to tell private employers how to, or whether to, provide benefits to their employees. This is a violation of freedom of association. It is a violation of property rights. It runs counter to the Golden Rule for the “neighbors” in a democracy to tell an employer  how he must behave toward his employees. They can form their own agreement as free individuals.

I say this is the least offensive because it has gone on for some time and has largely become the way of life here in America. Yes, I find Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and all government benevolence programs offensive, violations of freedom. But I suspect we’ve all come to expect as much from our government (that is, our neighbors who can’t mind their own business) and have learned to do benevolence properly even with the onerous burden of these mandates.

The mandate clearly goes a step further in threatening attempts at benevolence unless it follows some government guideline. That is, it’s one thing for the government to take 30% of my yearly production through various forms of taxation (that number is a swag) and then graciously allow me to be benevolent with the rest. It’s a completely different issue for the government to put restrictions on the free exercise of my benevolence with the leftovers.

We touched on this a while back in “Nathan Monk – Carry On Brother, Carry On.” Monk had joined in to protest ordinances that disallowed feeding the homeless. That’s right, the city passed an ordinance that said Monk and his friends could not give away food to hungry people.

In like manner, the government has now told catholic charities that if they wish to give away free medical care to the poor, they must also pay for birth control and abortions in their employee benefit plans. (Side note, I don’t go along with the catholics on birth control in general – but on abortive birth control we almost surely agree.) This is a real pickle. The church is not aiding the poor as a pastime. They take it as a biblical command (see Matthew 25, for instance). Now they are told they cannot carry out one command unless they violate another (you know, the whole murder thing).

This is my America? People cannot go out and give stuff away to the poor without also buying in on some progressive, secular humanist agenda which violates their conscience? Outrageous.

I will add that a number of political commentators believe it is all an election year gambit. Sure, the Obama administration wants to force the church to subjugate its beliefs to the almighty state. But they also need an issue to “get out the vote” – even if it threatens to get out the vote on the other side too. That may be. I tend to think politicians do everything they do for political reasons. I will say that the issue is big enough for me to potentially rethink my ardent opposition to Mitt Romney, should he gain the Republican nomination. I mean, anybody who could overturn or overthrow such nonsense would be a good thing. Oh, wait, Romney took much the same position with RomneyCare, when he said that catholic hospitals should be forced to administer “the morning after pill” … Oh well – I guess I’m still anti-Romney.

There’s always the courts though. I mean, only an idiot could read the constitution and come to the conclusion that this is not a violation of freedom of religion, right? I mean, we can always count on the courts, right? You’ll forgive me if I’m less than enthusiastic about that option.

One thing I am fairly confident about – the catholic charities will violate the command. They will not give in on their moral positions, and force the government to crack down on providers of free services for the poor. One thinks that perhaps the government will back down at that point. Perhaps.

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