The fact that the Supreme Court will hear a religious freedom-based challenge to the ObamaCare contraception mandate is the kind of story that possesses significance likely beyond any volume of coverage it will receive. Indeed, while liberal activists will repeatedly try to cast this in the mold of the fictional “war on women,” their own arguments reveal just how far-reaching a definitive ruling on this would be for American religious and political practice.

Thus it is instructive to listen to how the left frames the debate. To do this, it will be important to look beyond the “corporations aren’t people” argument that the left typically employs when asking the courts to remove First Amendment rights from individuals who coordinate their activities through an organized group. This argument is exceptionally weak; as Ilya Shapiro explained in the wake of the liberal hysterics over Citizens United, no one argues that companies don’t have, say, Fourth Amendment or Fifth Amendment rights.

So the left moves then from explicitly trying to revoke the constitutional rights of those with whom they disagree to the claim of protecting their own rights. This is when the left is at its most revealing, for liberals have a curious definition of rights. Last night, the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney debated birth-control activist Sandra Fluke on MSNBC on the topic. Carney said that if the government wants to claim a compelling interest in the provision of free birth control, they also must argue there was no less intrusive way to provide it. There are obviously less intrusive ways than this ObamaCare contraception mandate.

Fluke responded that one less-intrusive way would be to have the government simply provide birth control directly, but complained that conservatives are cutting back on funding for such public programs. Then, as Ryan Moy pointed out after the broadcast, Fluke said this:

So there’s an attack on allowing employers to be required to provide this insurance coverage on insurance that employees pay for, at the same time that there’s an attack on public availability through clinics.

One more time: there’s an attack on allowing employers to be required to provide this insurance. To the left, there is no freedom without government coercion. This is either incoherent or Orwellian, or both. But that’s the argument the left is running with: they want you to be forced to provide the funding for even their most private activities; only then will you be truly free.

But Fluke isn’t the only one making this argument. Mediaite has the video of an MSNBC roundtable on the issue, in which the panelists are panicked at the thought of affording Americans full religious liberty because, essentially, it’s then a slippery slope to protecting all constitutional rights. And then–mayhem, or something:

“This is another reason why we should have moved toward a single payer system of health coverage, because we’re just going to end up with one challenge after another – whether it’s in the courts or outside of the courts – and I just don’t see an end to this,” Herbert submitted.

“We’re already on the slippery slope of corporate personhood,” he continued. “Where does it end?”

“Where does it end” is the attention-getter in that comment, but I think Herbert’s plea for single-payer health insurance is just as telling. Put the government in charge of the country’s health care, Herbert argues, because then it will be much more difficult for Americans to “challenge” the government’s infringement on their freedom. It’s not just legal challenges either. Herbert says those challenges can be brought “in the courts or outside of the courts,” the latter perhaps an allusion to the shady world of participatory democracy.

So this is much more than a fight over birth control, or even health insurance. It’s about two fundamentally different views on American constitutional freedoms. Conservatives want those freedoms to be expansive and protected, as the Founders did. Liberals want those freedoms to be curtailed lest the citizenry get greedy or the democratic process imperil the state’s coercive powers.

The Founders saw religious freedom as elemental to personal liberty in America. But they were not alone in thinking that unimpeded religious worship was a guard against an overly ambitious or arrogant national government. As Michael Burleigh writes about the role of religion in post-French Revolution European politics, with a supporting quote from Edmund Burke:

The political function of religion was not simply to keep the lower orders quiescent, as has been tiresomely argued by generations of Marxists, but also to impress upon those who had power that they were here today and gone tomorrow, and responsible to those below and Him above: ‘All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust, and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.’

Religion was not the “opiate of the people,” intended to keep them in line. It was, rather, to keep the government in line. This was not a revolutionary idea; it predated the American Constitution, certainly. As Francis Fukuyama writes in The Origins of Political Order: “The existence of a separate religious authority accustomed rulers to the idea that they were not the ultimate source of the law. The assertion of Frederic Maitland that no English king ever believed that he was above the law could not be said of any Chinese emperor, who recognized no law other than those he himself made.”

A battle over the constitutional protection of religious liberty is not an abstraction nor, as in cases like the birth-control mandate, a minor social-issue front in the culture war. Such battles go to the heart of how we seek to govern ourselves and how we understand the fundamental documents that serve as the explication of our national political identity. Americans should watch this case closely and take its implications seriously.

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