Your Side Tries to Impose Its Beliefs — My Side Seeks Justice

In many ways, the U.S. News & World Report op-ed condemning Catholics verges on self-parody. The beginning is pretty telling:

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor just dropped the ball on American women and girls.

Et tu, Justice Sonia Sotomayor? Really, we can’t trust you on women’s health and human rights? The lady from the Bronx just dropped the ball on American women and girls as surely as she did the sparkling ball at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Or maybe she’s just a good Catholic girl.

The Supreme Court is now best understood as the Extreme Court. One big reason why is that six out of nine Justices are Catholic. Let’s be forthright about that. (The other three are Jewish.) Sotomayor, appointed by President Obama, is a Catholic who put her religion ahead of her jurisprudence. What a surprise, but that is no small thing.

In a stay order applying to an appeal by a Colorado nunnery, the Little Sisters of the Poor, Justice Sotomayor undermined the new Affordable Care Act’s sensible policy on contraception. She blocked the most simple of rules – lenient rules – that required the Little Sisters to affirm their religious beliefs against making contraception available to its members. They objected to filling out a one-page form. What could be easier than nuns claiming they don’t believe in contraception? …

But right now, the climate is so cold when it comes to defending our settled legal ground that Sotomayor’s stay is tantamount to selling out the sisterhood. And sisterhood is not as powerful as it used to be, ladies.

You’ve got it all here — “selling out the sisterhood” as being the key question. The claim that Sotomayor “put her religion ahead of her jurisprudence,” without any serious discussion of the actual “jurisprudence,” which deals with what showing is necessary to temporarily block enforcement pending litigation (and which, on the merits, acknowledges what might be “eas[y]” to some might be seen as a serious religious transgression by those who seek an exemption). The focus on Big Bad Catholics when many of the phenomena discussed in the article — e.g., the “campaign [in] the statehouse” by “the forces arrayed against women’s right to self-determination, which I take it refers to restrictions on abortion — stem more from the views of non-Catholics as well as the Catholics. The lack of acknowledgment that about half of women don’t share the views on abortion that the author thinks the “sisterhood” shares.

There’s much more said about this here and here (among other places), but in this post I want to focus on the one claim that is actually pretty common in such arguments:

More than WASPS, Methodists, Jews, Quakers or Baptists, Catholics often try to impose their beliefs on you, me, public discourse and institutions.

If you set aside the (unsupported) claim that it’s Catholics who are especially likely to do this, and substitute an ideological group for a religious one, this is a routine claim about people on the other side of many political debates.

The trouble, though, is that most significant laws involve “impos[ing one’s] beliefs” on others. The ACA imposes its backers’ beliefs on taxpayers, individuals who are deciding whether to buy insurance, and employers. Antidiscrimination laws impose their backers’ beliefs on employers, schools, landlords, home sellers, restaurant owners, photographers, and others. Endangered species laws impose their backers’ beliefs on property owners and hunters. Environmental laws impose their backers’ beliefs on a wide range of people. Gun controls impose their backers’ beliefs on gun owners and would-be gun owners. Laws creating welfare programs impose their backers’ beliefs on taxpayers.

And of course the same is true as to laws backed by both left and right — drug laws, compulsory education laws, child abuse laws, child support laws, and so on — as well as laws backed more by the right, such as abortion bans, restrictions on sexually themed businesses, defense spending authorizations, and more. Indeed, even the most basic of criminal laws, whether they ban murder, rape, robbery, fraud, or whatever else, involve imposing one’s beliefs on others.

Libertarians, who tend to want there to be fewer laws than either liberals or conservatives, are somewhat less likely to use laws to affirmatively impose their beliefs on others in the sense of using government coercion; still, most nonanarchist libertarians remain willing to impose many important beliefs, including through the criminal law. And if you use the op-ed author’s definition of “impos[ing] beliefs” as including validating exemptions from government coercion, especially when those exemptions favor employers in employer-employee contractual relationships, then libertarians, too, “impose their beliefs” by voting for more deregulatory regimes instead of more regulatory ones. (This implicit definition, coupled with the op-ed author’s militant support for the Affordable Care Act, and the fact that the great bulk of both Catholics and Protestants — and, based on my personal experience, Jews — aren’t libertarian makes me confident that the author wasn’t trying to draw a libertarian vs. liberal-and-conservative line. [UPDATE: I originally said that “Catholics are not materially less likely to be libertarian than Protestants or Jews,” and I think that’s still right, given the low fractions of all groups that are libertarian; but this study suggests that Catholics might be somewhat less likely than Protestants to be libertarian, so I’ve recast the preceding sentence; and in any event, it seems pretty clear that the author of the op-ed isn’t focusing on general libertarian orientation.])

Of course, most laws that we like don’t look like imposing “our” beliefs. They look like doing what’s right: protecting people’s rights, funding the proper functions of government, and such. But that’s just a way of saying that we think our beliefs about what the government should coerce are the right beliefs.

Claiming that your side has the right views about the proper subjects of government coercion, but the other side has the wrong views, may well be honest and even correct. Claiming that your opponents are more likely to “impose their beliefs” than your side is, when both sides are busy trying to impose their beliefs (just different beliefs), is not accurate.

Yet of course saying,

More than WASPS, Methodists, Jews, Quakers or Baptists, Catholics often try to impose beliefs I don’t like on you, me, public discourse and institutions. Other religious groups are more likely to impose beliefs that I do like.

wouldn’t have been quite as effective.