Saving America’s Soul – e-letter October 25, 2014

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Saving America’s Soul   Progressive Values e-letter October 25, 2014

We should begin by setting the conscience free. When all men of all religions…shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power…we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society. John Adams 2nd U.S. President

I am for freedom of religion and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another. Thomas Jefferson 3rd U.S. President

A progressive moral vision is deeply connected to the exercise of conscience. Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. Reinhold Niebuhr

background information for a national dialogue about America’s values and future: Saving America’s Soul – - overview – articles and excerpts or quick scan

 Democracy Should Be a Brake on Unbridled Greed and Power by Bill Moyers, Democracy Now, June 8, 2011

The False Equation: Religion Equals Morality by Gwynne Dyer, CommonDreams.org, December 19, 2011 -

Why the Christian Right Believes It Has Once-in-a-Decade Chance to Impose Its Radical Worldview on America By – CJ Werleman, Alternet.org, November 26, 2013

72% of Americans Disapprove of Republican Party…but it’s Set to Take Control of Both Houses of Congress Anyway posted on The Christian Left, Facebook, September 13, 2014 from AllGov.com

False facts and the conservative distortion machine: It’s much more than just Fox News by Paul Rosenberg, Salon.Com, Aug 18, 2014

Dark Ages Redux: American Politics and the End of the Enlightenment by John Atcheson, Common Dreams, June 18, 2012 — We are witnessing an epochal shift in our socio-political world… Much of what has made the modern world in general, and the United States in particular, a free and prosperous society comes directly from insights that arose during the Enlightenment. Too bad we’re chucking it all out and returning to the Dark Ages…Now, we seek to operate by revealed truths, not reality. Decrees from on high – often issued by an unholy alliance of religious fundamentalists, self-interested corporations, and greedy fat cats – are offered up as reality by rightwing politicians…

The Rise of the Religious Right in the Republican Party by Joan Bokaer, TheocracyWatch.org, 2008

The Long, Sordid History of the American Right and Racism By Robert Parry,   Consortium News May 20, 2013

Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control — And Why We’ll Still Be Fighting About it 100 Years From Now By Sara Robinson, AlterNet, February 15, 2012

How Propagandists for the 1% Are Manipulating Christian Teachings to Rob the Middle Class By Michael Meurer, Truthout, posted on Alternet.org, October 17, 2012

Wall or no wall, politics and religion have always been inextricably intertwined, and we won’t win until we recognize and deal with that fact. Why Progressives Can’t Ignore Religion by Mike Lux, AlterNet, February 27, 2012

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soul: a person’s deeply felt moral and emotional nature; the ability of a person to feel kindness and sympathy for others, to appreciate beauty and art, etc.; the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe; the moral and emotional nature of human beings merriam-webster.com

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…. Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

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From the editor, Phyllis Stenerson: This information is so important you need to learn it from a broad range of reliable sources. In the many times I’ve tried to write a succinct overview about our democracy being seriously threatened by the accelerating extremism of the Republican Party, I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude and tend to go on, and on, and on. When I first became aware of the gravity of this movement, particularly the manipulation of religion, I didn’t want to believe my head and heart (soul) screaming “This is so wrong.” Now the evidence is conclusive. Fueling culture wars using revisionist history, religion , women’s rights -  and race  as emotional wedge issues – is despicable. Thank you independent media for investigative, honest journalism. The impact is already disastrous, especially for children – /generational-justice/ , minorities and the planet and will get worse. It is the civic and moral responsibility of citizens – /citizenship/ who believe in America’s founding vision of religious pluralism and shared opportunity to fight back against extremists. Thank you for your attention. * * * * * -

The Constitution is inherently progressive by John Podesta and John Halpin, Politico.com, October 10, 2011 – …As progressives, we believe in using the ingenuity of the private sector and the positive power of government to advance common purposes and increase freedom and opportunity…Coupled with basic beliefs in fair play, openness, cooperation and human dignity, it is this progressive vision that in the past century helped build the strongest economy in history and allowed millions to move out of poverty and into the middle class …the story of America has also been the story of a good nation, conceived in liberty and equality, eventually welcoming every American into the arms of democracy, protecting their freedoms and expanding their economic opportunities…

At the heart of The American Soul (by Jacob Needleman) is a call to rediscover the timeless truths hidden within the founding vision of the American nation. Embedded in the ideals of democracy, individual liberty and freedom of conscience is a view of human nature that echoes essential aspects of the wisdom that has guided every great civilization of the world… – The Inward Work of Democracy, On Being with Krista Tippet, June 28, 2012

Crimes Against the Soul of America by Caroline Myss, Huffington Post, September 5, 2009 There is such a thing as a crime against the soul of a nation. A person or a political party can deliberately incite actions that diminish the strength, the integrity, and the overall well-being of a nation’s inner core…A conscious effort to “dumb down” the education of this nation qualifies as a crime against the soul of America.

The Sociopathic 1 Percent: The Driving Force at the Heart of the Tea Party By Paul Rosenberg, Salon.com, March 8, 2014 ……sociopaths are defined by their lack of empathy, conscience or any form of intuitive social awareness… It’s a mindset devoid of empathy or conscience, for whom other people simply are not real, a mindset that has gripped us collectively, ever more tightly, over the past 30 to 40 years…

Has Neoliberalism Turned Us All Into Psychopaths? By Paul Verhaeghe – The Guardian -  , posted on Alternet.org, October 2, 2014 …economic change is having a profound effect not only on our values but also on our personalities. Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatization have taken their toll…

The Progressive Conscience in Action by Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Center for American Progress, April 6, 2009 …For progressives, a crucial guiding principle in regard to public policy is to secure the common good while protecting individual liberty to the fullest extent possible. The progressive understanding of the “common good” is based on the conviction that not only is each individual endowed with human dignity, purpose, and worth, but also that human society as a whole should reflect these characteristics. Therefore, human beings together should strive to realize social relations based on these universal values…

Wasn’t Jesus A Liberal? by Gary Vance, The Christian Left, August 4, 2014 Liberalism has been under assault for years now. The battering of this grand political philosophy has altered the contemporary definition of liberal to the point that Conservatives use it as a profane word……Jesus was the ultimate liberal progressive revolutionary of all history…It is time for Christians of conscience to stand up to religious and political hypocrisy.

The Koch Brothers’ 3-Step Plan to Conquer the Next Generation  By Carl Gibson, Reader Supported News, September 14, 2014 1. Defund Public Schools 2. Make Schools Dependent on Private Entities for Money 3. Ingrain students with Greed-Based Ideology -

The Spirit That Drove Us to Civil War Is Back by Andy Schmookler, Huffington Post, 9/2/2014 …the force that drove us to Civil War more than a century and a half ago, and the force that has taken over the Republican Party in our times…In both cases, we see an elite insisting on their “liberty,” by which they mean the freedom to dominate…

The Worst Ideas of the Decade — The prosperity gospel by Cathleen Falsani, Washington Post, December 2009 …The “prosperity gospel,” an insipid heresy whose popularity among American Christians has boomed in recent years, teaches that God blesses those God favors most with material wealth….Told that wealth is a sign of God’s grace and favor…

The Radical Christian Right and the War on Government by Chris Hedges -  , TruthDig.com -  , posted on CommonDreams.org, October 7, 2013…This ideology calls on anointed “Christian” leaders to take over the state and make the goals and laws of the nation “biblical.”… The intellectual and moral hollowness of the ideology, its flagrant distortion and misuse of the Bible, the contradictions that abound within it… are impervious to reason and fact. And that is why the movement is dangerous.

America’s War for Reality by Robert Parry , January 15, 2013 by Consortium News -  — The real struggle confronting the United States… is testing whether fact-based people have the same determination to fight for their real-world view as those who operate in a fact-free space do in defending their illusions…..Simply put, the Right fights harder for its fantasy land than the rest of America does for the real world …The country is going to need its conscious inhabitants of the real world to stand up with at least the same determination as the deluded denizens of the made-up world. Of course, this fight will be nasty and unpleasant. It will require resources, patience and toughness. But there is no other answer. Reality must be recovered and protected – if the planet and the children are to be saved.

Idealism, Conscience And The Spiritual Left by William Horden, Huffington Post, March 1, 2010 …Rooted deep in the grain of American culture, the Spiritual Left has long acted as the progressive conscience of the nation…The Political Left will need to return to the moral high ground of progressive American thought and give voice to the American conscience of compassion if it is to recapture the imagination and heart of its spiritual counterpart. It has to want to change the world for the better, not just get elected…

Phyllis Stenerson, Paideia LLC  612.331.1929 – phyllis@progressivevalues.org  – http://www.ProgressiveValues.org

Paideia (pu-di’uh) is an ancient Greek philosophy of educating for citizenship to create an ideal society

Fair Use Notice: These pages contain copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. This website distributes this material without profit for educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C. § 107. The many wise and articulate writers who share their knowledge with the public via the internet are profoundly appreciated. If any writer wishes to have their content amended or removed, please contact the editor at – phyllis@progressivevales.org phyllis@progressivevales.org. Thank you.

Spiritual Politics

A Val­ues– and Vision-Based Polit­i­cal Dream by Ben­jamin Morde­cai Ben-Baruch, Tikkun, Win­ter 2011, We need lead­ers and orga­niz­ers to inspire peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties to act on their val­ues and hopes. We need help artic­u­lat­ing our val­ues and vision of the ideal future. Right-wing suc­cesses have been achieved by appeal­ing to peo­ples’ fears, hatreds and prej­u­dices. But the pol­i­tics of hope is stronger than pol­i­tics of fear. Imag­in­ing our future based on our high­est ideals can mobi­lize us to over­come the paral­y­sis of fear and hatred. The pol­i­tics of hope is not issue ori­ented, and peo­ple who share the same val­ues and vision often dis­agree on the issues…We need to go beyond issue-oriented pol­i­tics and the pol­i­tics of fear to a pub­lic dis­course focused on artic­u­lat­ing our vision for the ideal future and what that future would look like. We need a vision of a soci­ety with­out the injus­tices of poverty and social inequal­ity. We need a dream..

Idealism, Conscience And The Spiritual Left by William Horden, Huff­in­g­ton Post, March 1, 2010 …Spir­i­tual Left did not, of course, orig­i­nate with the 60s.…it dates back at least to 1838, when Emer­son and other Tran­scen­den­tal­ists began their quest for a path “away from the old ‘reli­gions of author­ity’ into a new ‘reli­gion of the spirit.’”…sought a first-hand expe­ri­ence of the divine grounded in nature and com­mu­nity rather than insti­tu­tion­al­ized dogma. Rooted deep in the grain of Amer­i­can cul­ture, the Spir­tual Left has long acted as the pro­gres­sive con­science of the nation, cham­pi­oning as it did from its very begin­ning unpop­u­lar causes like abo­li­tion and women’s rights…
While many in the Spir­i­tual Left are polit­i­cally active, many oth­ers eschew direct par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Polit­i­cal Left because it remains locked in a destruc­tive cycle of con­flict with the Polit­i­cal Right…
Amor­phous and anti-authoritarian, the Spir­i­tual Left is per­haps best defined as a bor­der­less asso­ci­a­tion of lead­ers. Free thinkers and inde­pen­dent seek­ers of spir­i­tu­al­ity beyond dogma, its mem­bers engage in–and dis­en­gage from–political activism as a mat­ter of per­sonal con­vic­tion, not ordained group­think…The Polit­i­cal Left will need to return to the moral high ground of pro­gres­sive Amer­i­can thought and give voice to the Amer­i­can con­science of com­pas­sion if it is to recap­ture the imag­i­na­tion and heart of its spir­i­tual coun­ter­part. It has to want to change the world for the bet­ter, not just get elected…

Six Reasons We Can’t Change the Future Without Progressive Religion

Rise of the Religious Left by Charles Blow, New York Times, July 2, 2010

The religious left – An old tradition for a new day by Daniel McKanan , Unitarian Universalist World, Winter 2009

On Ditching Illusion and Building Hope by Dave Belden, Tikkun/Network of Spiritual Progressives, October 30, 2010

Liberals Call for Spiritual Values in Public Policy, The Voice of America, By Susan Logue, Washington, May 24, 2006

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Network of Spiritual Progressives - loving and caring – the new bottom line

NSP was founded in 2005 by three of the most provocative public intellectuals active in the area of religion and American culture.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of TIKKUN magazine, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley and San Francisco, CA, and the author of eleven books, including most recently The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right.
Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and longtime social justice advocate, is the author of more than thirty books, including Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir. In addition to cochairing the Network of Spiritual Progressives, she is the executive director of BenetVision, a research center and clearinghouse for spiritual resources.
Cornel West is currently a professor of religion at Princeton University. Among his several books are Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America (with Rabbi Michael Lerner) and Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism.

What is Spiritual?

Ethics, aesthetics, love, compassion, creativity, music, altruism, generosity, forgiveness, spontaneity, emergent phenomena, consciousness itself, and any other aspect of reality not subject to empirical verification or measurement. Many scientists are also spiritual: they understand that the scientific method is appropriate for describing regularities in the natural world, but not for understanding all of reality. Those aspects of reality that cannot be reduced to publicly observable and verifiable behavior we call spiritual.

What Is A Spiritual Progressive? (Hint:You don’t have to believe in God or Be Part of a Religion).

YOU are a spiritual progressive if you endorse the New Bottom Line: Institutions, corporations, government policies, legislation, our political system, our health care system, our educational system, our legal system, and even our personal behavior should be judged “efficient,” “productive” and/or “rational” not only to the extent that they maximize money, power, or fame (the OLD Bottom Line) but also to the extent that they maximize or help produce, sustain or enhance our abilities to be loving and kind, generous and caring for others, ethically and ecologically sensitive in our behavior, able to see others as embodiments of the sacred (or as deserving to be treated as ends and not as means to our own ends), and increasingly able to transcend the tendency to look at the physical world merely in utilitarian terms (how can we use it for human purposes) so that we can respond with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of all that is. You don’t have to believe in God, deny science, or be part of a religion to be a spiritual progressive. Spiritual progressives use the New Bottom Line to assess the value of our economic, political, and social arrangements and seek to do tikkun (heal and transform the world), using tactics and strategies which themselves manifest that new bottom line (e.g. non-violence and non-violent communication). Or to put it in a short sound byte: we support The Caring Society—Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth.

Network of Spiritual Progressives Minnesota - founded in 2005 by a group including this website’s editor, Phyllis Stenerson

We are part of a grassroots movement creating a culture of purpose and meaning
deeper than the mere pursuit of money and power.

We are working to We are part of a grassroots movement creating a culture of purpose and meaning
deeper than the mere pursuit of money and power.

We are working to reshape our economic, political, and social life in accord with a new bottom line
of love, compassion, community, fairness, peace, and awe and wonder at the universe.

We invite everyone who believes in the power of love and generosity
to join us in this process of healing and transformation.
reshape our economic, political, and social life in accord with a new bottom line
of love, compassion, community, fairness, peace, and awe and wonder at the universe.

We invite everyone who believes in the power of love and generosity
to join us in this process of healing and transformation.

The Progressive Conscience in Action by Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

Center for American Progress, April 6, 2009

A progressive moral vision is deeply connected to the exercise of conscience…For progressives, a crucial guiding principle in regard to public policy is to secure the common good while protecting individual liberty to the fullest extent possible. The progressive understanding of the “common good” is based on the conviction that not only is each individual endowed with human dignity, purpose, and worth, but also that human society as a whole should reflect these characteristics. Therefore, human beings together should strive to realize social relations based on these universal values…  many religions emphasize its centrality to human goodness and dignity and have done so from ancient times. Increasingly, nonbelievers have also asserted the right of conscience as a central part of their value formation as well—a perspective that has prevailed in the courts…Among both religious and secular traditions, conscience is often depicted as residing in the heart…Another approach to integrating personal conscience into the larger social agenda has involved the cultivation of the faith community—essentially a faith-bound network of diverse human hearts... The simultaneously individual and social natures of conscience—and the recognition that it is necessary to accommodate these equally important demands of conscience—are fundamental aspects of conscience for progressives. This balanced perspective on conscience is especially crucial in relationship to democratic policymaking, which by definition requires individuals at times to sacrifice their self-interests to the interests of others or for the larger good…it would be a useful start to agree that even the most deeply felt conclusions of conscience can still benefit from honest discussion and from a periodic review of the fundamental goals that we, as a deeply faith-enriched but ultimately secular society, hope to achieve togetherConscience is at the heart of progressivism because conscience is not just a feeling but a palpable urge toward improvement—a call to action or engagement. Conscience is the way our moral sense and our moral formation come together to inform our actions in the world…the progressive perspective asks more than that. It also asks, “What do we believe is right?” and “What should we do about it?” That’s because in the progressive view, conscience is not only inward and individual but is also directed toward creating a more just and equitable society…one of the central differences between progressive views of conscience and other views is the willingness to change those views with time based on new information and the social needs of the day. By contrast, conservative religious or social traditions tend to focus on divine proclamation or fixed political views and teachings, irrespective of emerging crises of social justice or changing sensibilities about the nature of the common good…In the progressive view, diverse voices of conscience come together through the democratic process and the engagement of individual and institutional values in policy debates... A progressive approach to conscience in public policy must constantly hold freedom and accountability in tension…

 

Excerpt

A progressive moral vision is deeply connected to the exercise of conscience…For progressives, a crucial guiding principle in regard to public policy is to secure the common good while protecting individual liberty to the fullest extent possible. The progressive understanding of the “common good” is based on the conviction that not only is each individual endowed with human dignity, purpose, and worth, but also that human society as a whole should reflect these characteristics. Therefore, human beings together should strive to realize social relations based on these universal values…  many religions emphasize its centrality to human goodness and dignity and have done so from ancient times. Increasingly, nonbelievers have also asserted the right of conscience as a central part of their value formation as well—a perspective that has prevailed in the courts…Among both religious and secular traditions, conscience is often depicted as residing in the heart…Another approach to integrating personal conscience into the larger social agenda has involved the cultivation of the faith community—essentially a faith-bound network of diverse human hearts... The simultaneously individual and social natures of conscience—and the recognition that it is necessary to accommodate these equally important demands of conscience—are fundamental aspects of conscience for progressives. This balanced perspective on conscience is especially crucial in relationship to democratic policymaking, which by definition requires individuals at times to sacrifice their self-interests to the interests of others or for the larger good…it would be a useful start to agree that even the most deeply felt conclusions of conscience can still benefit from honest discussion and from a periodic review of the fundamental goals that we, as a deeply faith-enriched but ultimately secular society, hope to achieve togetherConscience is at the heart of progressivism because conscience is not just a feeling but a palpable urge toward improvement—a call to action or engagement. Conscience is the way our moral sense and our moral formation come together to inform our actions in the world…the progressive perspective asks more than that. It also asks, “What do we believe is right?” and “What should we do about it?” That’s because in the progressive view, conscience is not only inward and individual but is also directed toward creating a more just and equitable society…one of the central differences between progressive views of conscience and other views is the willingness to change those views with time based on new information and the social needs of the day. By contrast, conservative religious or social traditions tend to focus on divine proclamation or fixed political views and teachings, irrespective of emerging crises of social justice or changing sensibilities about the nature of the common good…In the progressive view, diverse voices of conscience come together through the democratic process and the engagement of individual and institutional values in policy debates... A progressive approach to conscience in public policy must constantly hold freedom and accountability in tension…

Full text

A progressive moral vision is deeply connected to the exercise of conscience. But the interface between conscience and policymaking is poorly defined, making the concept of conscience susceptible to hijacking by conservative political forces.

This is an especially important point today given the renewed debate over what has been called the “right of conscience” of individuals and institutions to decline health care or other services that they find morally objectionable. Specifically, President Barack Obama’s proposal in March to rescind a broad conscience rule adopted by the Bush administration in January—alongside a federal call by the Obama administration for public comments on its proposed rule change by April 9—demand that Americans think carefully about what it means to be true to one’s conscience in a pluralistic democracy such as ours.
Many who support the Bush rule argue that they are defenders of conscience and portray their opponents as its enemies, but that is simplistic. What it is being played out in the public debate over this rule are different approaches to thinking about how conscience informs public policy and how public policy accommodates conscience.

For progressives, a crucial guiding principle in regard to public policy is to secure the common good while protecting individual liberty to the fullest extent possible. The progressive understanding of the “common good” is based on the conviction that not only is each individual endowed with human dignity, purpose, and worth, but also that human society as a whole should reflect these characteristics. Therefore, human beings together should strive to realize social relations based on these universal values. People can differ, of course, in their view of how to define these terms and achieve that balance. In fact, given the generally sacrosanct status of the voice of conscience—its religious and secular value—it is not surprising that conscience-based conflicts arise.

But a close look at conscience through the lens of philosophical, political, and religious history shows that it was the Bush approach, and not the Obama approach, that veered from a longstanding centrist and socially responsible position on conscience. To appreciate this perspective, progressives must understand their own roots among the many traditions on conscience, and the valuable contribution that progressivism can make as we all wrestle with the question of how conscience should be adjudicated in the public policy arena.
The roots of conscience
Conscience may or may not be a uniquely human capacity, but it appears to be most highly developed in humans—attributable, according to some, to our having been created in the image of God and, according to others, by sheer dint of our ability to reason as taught through countless lessons of evolution.

Whatever the roots of conscience, many religions emphasize its centrality to human goodness and dignity and have done so from ancient times. Increasingly, nonbelievers have also asserted the right of conscience as a central part of their value formation as well—a perspective that has prevailed in the courts. In 1970, during the height of the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court ruled in Welsh v. United States that “depth and fervency” of beliefs qualified a soldier for conscientious objector status, regardless of whether those beliefs were religious in nature. This was a long overdue recognition by the courts of the role of conscience in secular values.

Among both religious and secular traditions, conscience is often depicted as residing in the heart—an indicator of its vital role in life. In the Hebraic view, for example, it is the heart that bears witness to the moral worth of our acts and that ultimately condemns or exonerates us. Muslims also focus on the heart when engaging in ethical decision making. According to the Koran, “God lies between the human being and his heart.”

In virtually all traditions, “listening to the heart” can bring one’s own voice into harmony with that of God or Truth. And virtually all religions, as well as a number of secular traditions, have constructed mechanisms to encourage heartfelt reflection as a means of finding truth and achieving justice, among them Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting), Yom Kippur (the Jewish holy day of atonement), Lent (the Christian period of prayer and fasting), and Buddhist meditation.

But individual reflection offers no guarantee of resolution when it comes to making social policy, and religious dictum can’t settle all conflicts in a secular society.
One approach to dealing with this reality has been to develop teachings that explicitly show how to apply religious rules to everyday life. Judaism, for example, has the Halakhah, a set of practical texts whose purpose is to resolve conflicts between the teachings of scripture and the rules of civil law.

Another approach to integrating personal conscience into the larger social agenda has involved the cultivation of the faith community—essentially a faith-bound network of diverse human hearts. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century has increasingly emphasized a tolerance toward individual consciences that may differ from official teaching, though it should be noted that the Church deviates from its tolerance for individual conscience when it comes to abortion and has been a stalwart supporter of Bush’s exclusionary expansion of the “right to conscience.”

Protestants, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, have found conscience not only in the individual and the community but also in social movements. The Social Gospel movement of the early part of the 20th century, which applied Christian ethics to an array of social ills and helped sow the seeds of the U.S. civil rights movement, exemplified this broader view and application of conscience.

The simultaneously individual and social natures of conscience—and the recognition that it is necessary to accommodate these equally important demands of conscience—are fundamental aspects of conscience for progressives. This balanced perspective on conscience is especially crucial in relationship to democratic policymaking, which by definition requires individuals at times to sacrifice their self-interests to the interests of others or for the larger good.

Especially relevant to the current debate over “right to conscience” is that many traditions acknowledge that individual and even communal conscience is not infallible. History has repeatedly shown that even very deeply held and age-old “obvious” truths, based on individual or societal conscience, can be mistaken. Slavery and the acceptability of torture are two examples of “rights in good conscience” that prevailed in a former era and that today are almost universally viewed as deeply flawed. The death penalty and today’s bans on gay marriage may someday be viewed in a similar light.

It may seem a small thing, but it would be a useful start to agree that even the most deeply felt conclusions of conscience can still benefit from honest discussion and from a periodic review of the fundamental goals that we, as a deeply faith-enriched but ultimately secular society, hope to achieve together.

The progressive conscience

Conscience is at the heart of progressivism because conscience is not just a feeling but a palpable urge toward improvement—a call to action or engagement. Conscience is the way our moral sense and our moral formation come together to inform our actions in the world. As a result, conscience is not fully conscientious unless one acts on that conscience. Put differently, conscience is a guide to answering not only the question, “What do I believe is right?” but also the question, “What should I do about it?”

But the progressive perspective asks more than that. It also asks, “What do we believe is right?” and “What should we do about it?” That’s because in the progressive view, conscience is not only inward and individual but is also directed toward creating a more just and equitable society. Progressives emphasize this aspect of conscience and therefore struggle with moral reflection on the question, “What is it right to do that provides the most good for the whole society?” Caring for others and not just for oneself or one’s kind is, of course, a universal value found in both religious and humanist writings.
Almost by definition, the social aspect of conscience defies unanimity. Thus there will be some tension between the individual conscience and the idea of the social good. This is a necessary tension, not only because of the predictable differences among individuals but also because of the need to allow an ongoing evolution of ideas of what constitutes the social good as social conditions change.
Indeed, one of the central differences between progressive views of conscience and other views is the willingness to change those views with time based on new information and the social needs of the day. By contrast, conservative religious or social traditions tend to focus on divine proclamation or fixed political views and teachings, irrespective of emerging crises of social justice or changing sensibilities about the nature of the common good.

To be clear, this relative stasis in conservative traditions is not the result of a lack of compassion or a failure to accept change, but comes from the belief that one’s longstanding take on conscience will best serve individuals and society in the long run. Still, the result is that new social challenges find themselves having to adapt to old and potentially outdated ideas, instead of the reverse.

In the progressive view, diverse voices of conscience come together through the democratic process and the engagement of individual and institutional values in policy debates. This is not a smooth or easy process and conflict is bound to occur. However, isn’t this precisely the test of true conscience—a willingness to test limits, to allow and even demand introspection and counterpoint?

Similarly, sound public policy in a democracy comes from adjudicating among the individual claims of conscience, protecting principled dissent, and making conscientiously vigorous policies that serve the greatest good for the whole society.

The “conscience” rule must be rescinded to protect conscience

A progressive approach to conscience in public policy must constantly hold freedom and accountability in tension. The sweeping expansion of individual rights to allow unmitigated “religious refusal” in the last-minute Bush rule destroyed this tension. It destabilized the previously balanced relationship between individual liberty of conscience and the rights of patients to safe and reliable care. It permitted doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care workers to decline their participation in any procedure they found morally objectionable, including not only abortion, but contraception, artificial insemination, and potentially even nonreproductive health care services as well.

The Bush rule is so widely applicable that it extends not only to doctors and nurses but to anyone who works in and around places where such procedures are performed or products dispensed. It also protects institutional entities such as health insurance plans. The exclusive priority placed on the provider’s conscience tilted the scales radically from any notional center of moral gravity and made it impossible for patients to be able to rely on a uniform standard of care.

In short, under the Bush rule all the “conscience” protection is weighted toward those who object to certain reproductive procedures and technologies, while the right of conscience of patients, their families, and other health care providers whose consciences dictated differently is explicitly dismissed.

It is important to note that a number of protections are already in place for health care workers who might object to providing certain services. Most notably, the so-called Church Amendments—named after former Senator Frank Church of Idaho—offer conscience protections to individual health care providers. In addition, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows certain organizations to make employment decisions on the basis of religion and to accommodate employees’ religious-based refusals to perform services under certain circumstances. Title VII makes clear, however, that the refusers’ rights are not absolute. It assures, for example, that in a health care setting, patient care—which is, after all, the employer’s raison d’etre—has robust standing. But the law seeks a sensible assurance of balance.

In addition, some court decisions, including Catholic Charities v. Serio and Catholic Charities v. Superior Court, have affirmed the importance of not allowing refusal rules to go too far—especially when an institution invokes a right of refusal. In both cases, the courts found that laws exempting religious employers from providing coverage for contraception in their employee health benefit plans did not apply to religiously affiliated social service agencies that employed a religiously diverse workforce, did not engage in proselytization, and served the general public. These cases sent a clear legal signal that Bush decided to ignore when he promulgated his expanded conscience rule.
All members of our society deserve to know that they will be provided a professional standard of health care. Patients must be able to have confidence that health care workers will put their lives and well-being first. In the words of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a “patient’s well-being must be paramount” when conflicts arise over the moral beliefs of professionals and patients.
While providers’ preferences should certainly be respected whenever possible, it is simply wrong when, in a secular, pluralistic society, a rape victim’s legal prescription for emergency contraception goes unfilled by a pharmacist opposed to such medicines, as happened in Texas, or when a woman with a life-threatening embolism is refused a medically indicated early abortion because of the hospital’s religious affiliation, as happened to a 19-year-old in Nebraska.
It is unconscionable for health care professionals to put a patient’s life and well-being at risk. It is time to restore the balance of individual American consciences through clear rules that uphold professional standards in health care and fully serve those who are in need of care.

Susan Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow in the Faith and Public Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. To read more about this program at the Center please go to Religion and Values page of our website.

http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/04/health_conscience.html