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Michael Kessler Michael Kessler is managing director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, a visiting assistant professor of Government, and an adjunct professor of...

Ethical values, based on religion and reason, shape the kinds of law and policy citizens desire to govern their community. At the same time, the law shapes how we become moral persons and the kinds of communities we hope to build. Law, morality, and religion are intertwined. Yet ideologically-charged policy debates, the grittiness of political compromise, and the impersonal rule of law often don't correlate with--and can even damage--our deepest religious and moral commitments. We talk about law achieving a just order, but we too often struggle to develop notions of justice that rise beyond "efficiency" measured by markets and the "balancing" of preferences. Just Law and Religion rejects the cynic's reduction of law and politics to an amoral arena of clashing interests. It recognizes the crucial role of law and policy in achieving social stability, but focuses on how fundamental rights and moral values both shape and are shaped by contemporary legal and political institutions. Just Law and Religion will take the "moral temperature" of current events and issues across a vast array of political institutions, law, and culture in order to comprehend the ethical stakes, and the promise and perils, of our common life. Just Law and Religion asserts that law and politics can only be âœjust❠when they concede there is more to human value and meaning than legal and political institutions can achieve.


Keeping the Real Threat in View

September 11, 2010

What would George Washington say about Islam in USA?

July 28, 2010

Religious freedom to exclude

June 28, 2010

The dignity of pedestrians

June 11, 2010

An oil-driven Memorial Day

May 28, 2010

Cross purposes

April 28, 2010

National day of prayer w/ caution

April 24, 2010

National day of prayer confusion

April 16, 2010

The religious neutrality of Justice John Paul Stevens

April 9, 2010

No Sabbath rest for job weary?

April 2, 2010

Silencing student religious beliefs

March 20, 2010

Establishment Clause doesn't limit foreign policy

February 26, 2010

The dignity of snow shovelers

February 10, 2010

Holy wars and weapons

January 20, 2010

Best and worst of humanity on Bravo

December 8, 2009

Jefferson's Thanksgiving wish

November 25, 2009

>> more

No room in health reform for Mary?

December 17, 2009

Chuck Norris thinks Obamacare could morph into first-century "Herodcare." Norris thinks a democratic Congress seems hell-bent on slipping in funding to kill all the unborn to save money for health reform. He asks of Jesus' mother Mary: "what if that young, poor and uninsured teenage woman had been provided the federal funds (via Obamacare) and facilities (via Planned Parenthood, etc.) to avoid the ridicule, ostracizing, persecution and possible stoning because of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy?" What if, indeed?

Well, I think there's an easy answer to dilemma Norris poses. My guess is the angel of the Lord would have been capable of strategically planning how to get around the lure of a government program that supposedly paid for abortion on demand. Jesus' kingdom was not of this world, after all, and God--trying to bring about the salvation of the world through this child--might have been able to incline Mary's heart to choose to let Jesus be born, as the gospel tells us she did. Herod, or Obama, powerful as they are in earthly government, presumably wouldn't be any match for Yahweh's intervention in shaping the choice of this young woman.

What's more interesting about the Mary and Joseph story, though, is the light it sheds on the conscience-based exemptions some propose as a way forward in the debates over abortion and same-sex marriage.

Conscience clauses in same-sex marriage are intended to allow clergy and religious groups the opportunity to avoid participation in same-sex marriages without running afoul of anti-discrimination laws. Some proposals include extending the exemption to individuals, even those who are serving in public office, or offering a business service. In the abortion realm, they allow caregivers to not participate in or provide procedures they object to, without running afoul of other applicable laws.

I have often thought that religious exemptions are probably a good compromise position for the inevitable conflict between the basic moral goods of free exercise of religion and equal protection/access of the law. If you don't want to participate in some ritual or act that you disagree with--particularly on the basis of your conscience--you shouldn't have to. Legally, I think these exemptions are a wise way to balance competing interests.

As I see it, there is at least one moral problem, though: Overconfidence in one's own moral views might make one miss the subtle movement of God through surprising means.

Recall the story of the birth of Jesus in the gospel of Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin'i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2: 1-7, RSV)

Imagine, for a moment, that Joseph and Mary were denied a room at the inn, not because it was overcrowded, but because the innkeepers were conscientious about their own consciences telling them that a pregnant, unwed mother traveling with the presumptive father had no business sleeping in their respectable establishment. A conscience clause and religiously-based exemption would give them that right. In fact, they refused them entry even to the manger. Harlots get out!

These well-meaning innkeepers, intending to remain pure, would have denied what Christians know to be God's love bestowed upon the world because the vessel of this grace didn't fit within their conception legitimate and natural love.

Mary, Joseph, and the babe who opens the way to salvation would have frozen out on the plain.

Again, I'm not making a claim about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of abortion, or same-sex marriage. Those debates are for another time.

Rather, I'm urging us all in this holiday (and for me, this Christmas) season to dwell on that trite phrase that Norman Vincent Peale popularized: "God works in mysterious ways."

The Christian story of Christmas unfolds the world-historical path to redemption through a babe laying in a manger. We should be careful before we presume to so rigidly exclude certain people and relationships from the many, mysterious ways that God's love moves in, upon, and through each of us.