Freedom. Conscience. Liberty. Choice. Welfare
Ahem…allow me to start again.
FREEDOM! CONSCIENCE! LIBERTY! CHOICE! WELFARE!
Over the past ten days, these words have been shouted at an ear-splitting volume from the airwaves, from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), from the editorial pages and from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Two of these words in particular are misused and supremely vital to all 313 million Americans.
Free∙dom (noun) : the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action*
Wel∙fare (noun) : the state of doing well especially in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity*
Both words predate the issue of women’s health and birth control. Both words are found in the United States Constitution. While I can’t assume every pundit, legislator and aspiring politician has delved into the historical context of our founding document or studied the nuances of our language in the 1700’s, these words express straight forward concepts.
In the debate over whether the employees of – for example – Catholic hospitals should have access to contraception through their employer-provided health insurance, the wires seem to have been crossed in respect to the word “freedom.” The Catholic bishops seem fond of a highly edited version of the First Amendment which reads, to them: “Congress shall protect the religious freedom of Americans.”
I’m afraid if religious conservatives read the document they purport to exalt, they would find a very different sentiment. The First Amendment, of course, reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Translation: everyone is welcome to their own belief system, but we won’t be writing legislation that elevates one of those systems above the others.”
Which is exactly what the bishops are asking for. They want a special, federal legal exemption that is already denied them in more than two dozen states.
Even if forcing non-Catholics to adhere to Catholic beliefs – thus legislating away freedom by implementing “necessity” and “coercion” – wasn’t prohibited by the Bill of Rights, the whole argument is preempted by the first sentence of our Constitution.
The Preamble makes no mention of religion. Our Founding Fathers stated very specifically that the purpose of the document was to do five things:
●insure domestic tranquility
●provide for the common defense
●promote the general welfare
The language is plain. It is our government’s job to see it to it that we as Americans are – to use the definition of the word welfare – “in a state of doing well.” For most of us, there’s no leap to make, no bridge to cross from there to our individual and collective health. If we are ill, we are not “in a state of doing well.” We cannot get from ill to well without heath care.
It turns out, the authors of our Constitution felt so strongly about the concept of general welfare, they bring it up again immediately after spending Article 1, Sections 1-7 describing who can run for office and how the Senate and House of Representatives would conduct business.
Article 1, Section 8 begins as such:
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
Providing for the common defense – a phrase conservatives hold tightly to – and providing for the general welfare held such equal weight with the Founders that they didn’t have to repeat the word “provide.” They’re in the same clause. There’s no avoiding it. Taxes, defense, welfare.
After reading such plain language, asking to join the other 32 developed nations of planet Earth by providing American citizens with universal health care hardly seems radical. Norway was the first, implementing their system 100 years ago. Israel was the last to get on board, but did so seventeen years ago despite centuries-long internal conflict.
I suggest that nearly 225 years after the writing of The Constitution, our legislators get busy adhering to the priorities proclaimed by James Madison and company. Every Congress that fails to provide for the general welfare of all of America’s citizens tarnishes the legacy of our Founding Fathers.
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Categories: Finding My Voice