Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State
Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?
US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (16 February, 2012)

Testimony of C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D.

Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy, Union University 

[PDF File] Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. I am C. Ben Mitchell, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and an ordained minister and former pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention. I am also a consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I am both honored and humbled to testify in support of the protection of religious freedom and liberty of conscience. I am honored because I have the privilege of following in the legacy of my Baptist forebears who were such stalwart defenders of religious freedom. I am humbled because many of those forebears suffered and died so that you and I could live in a nation with religious freedom from state coercion. I stand in the rich legacy of individuals like Roger Williams (c. 1603-1683), a one-time Baptist and the founder of Providence Plantation which later became the state of Rhode Island, who declared in no uncertain terms that the violation of a person's religious conscience was nothing less than "the rape of the soul."1 Williams understood that forcing a person through the power of the state to violate his or her own conscience is a monstrous harm.

Moreover, every American is a legatee of the freedoms secured in our Constitution partly through the influence of the Reverend John Leland (1754-1841), who was a Baptist minister in Massachusetts and Virginia and who became a friend of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other American founders. It was Leland who helped frame the free exercise clause of our First Amendment.

In a sermon Leland preached in 1791, he proclaimed, "Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it [government] in religious matters; otherwise let men be free." He continued, "religion is a matter between God and individuals, religious opinions of men not being the objects of civil government nor any way under its control."2

Finally, I must appeal to a 20th century Texas Baptist minister, George W. Truett (1867-1944), pastor of the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas. In a sermon preached from the steps of the U. S. Capitol on May 16, 1920, Reverend Truett recounted a discussion at a London dinner between an American statesman, Dr. J. L. Curry, and a member of the British House of Commons, John Bright. Mr. Bright asked Dr. Curry, "What distinct contribution has your America made to the science of government?" Curry responded immediately, "The doctrine of religious liberty." After a moment's reflection, Mr. Bright offered a reply, "It was a tremendous contribution."3

I have two reasons for citing these historical examples. On the one hand, it is to remind us that what American University law professor Daniel Dreisbach and his co-editor Mark David Hall have called "the sacred rights of conscience," which we Americans enjoy, were secured at an extraordinary cost. On the other hand, it is to remind us that as Truett said later in his sermon, religious liberty was, at least largely, "a Baptist achievement," for the common good. Every American is a beneficiary of this legacy; we are all freeloading on their sacrifice.

That is why I am here to decry the contraception, abortifacient, and sterilization mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services on January 20, 2012. The policy is an unconscionable intrusion by the state into the consciences of American citizens. Contrary to portrayals in some of the popular media, this is not only a Catholic issue. All people of faith- and even those who claim no faith-have a stake in whether or not the government can violate the consciences of its citizenry. Religious liberty and the freedom to obey one's conscience is also not just a Baptist issue. It is an American issue that is enshrined in our founding documents.

The Obama Administration's most recent so-called "accommodation" for religious organizations is no accommodation at all. It is a bait and switch scheme of the most egregious sort.


1.  Roger Williams, "The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution," in Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (eds), The Sacred Right of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009), p. 151.

2.  John Leland, "The Rights of Conscience Inalienable," in Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805, 2 vols. Foreword by Ellis Sandoz , 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), Vol. 2. For a profile of John Leland see the PBS series, God in America.

3.  George W. Truett, "Baptists and Religious Liberty," reprinted in Baptist History and Heritage, 33, no. 1 (Winter 1998) , p. 69.