One so rarely expects to hear what politicians really think that, when it happens, people notice. Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate who is today seeking to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Ted Kennedy’s death, found this out the hard way. (Barring a call for a recount, the outcome should be decided by this evening.)

In a recent radio interview, Coakley — the Bay State’s current attorney general who is being strongly challenged by Republican Scott Brown in a race much closer than anyone had anticipated in traditionally Democratic Massachusetts — opined that Catholics and hospitals perhaps should not mix.

Radio host Ken Pittman asked Coakley her opinion about so-called conscience clauses, which permit health care workers to refuse to provide treatment or advice if in so doing they would violate their moral or religious principles.

While not perfect, conscience clauses represent one method by which Americans have expressed their tolerance in our pluralist society. At base, conscience clauses recognize that a person should not be forced to commit an act the person finds morally repugnant or that violates their conscience, while still permitting people of differing views full participation n in the public square.

Coakley, however, apparently has a different view. “You can have religious freedom,” she said on air to Pittman, “but you probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.”

This statement has caused quite a stir among Massachusetts voters, especially Catholics, who make up a large percentage of the possible voting pool, as well as others. While it is unclear exactly what Coakley meant, she seems to be articulating a view all too common among secularized elites. That view maybe summarized as providing that religious thought must remain a matter of thought and not action — and that the state can trump the beliefs of its citizens if it finds a reason to do so.

In our current social order, those reasons usually revolve around family and medical care. Massachusetts here has already set an example. Catholic Charities was forced to cease its adoption services because the state would force them to place children with same-sex couples, against Church teaching. Other states have acted similarly in the health care field. Both New York and California have passed laws requiring Catholic hospitals to provide contraceptive insurance coverage for their employees — although, again, doing so would violate Church teaching. Courts have ruled these laws as legitimate exercises of state power, in the name of “health” or “equality,” which are what the writer Russell Kirk once called modern “god-terms” that can brook no opposition.

This elite opinion, in the name of equality or freedom of choice, takes no heed of the actual constitutional protections afforded religious belief, which place that belief — and the acts of conscience derived form it — ahead of other considerations. The Founders well knew the temptation of the state to act as the sole source of individual rights, and sought through the First Amendment to publicly acknowledge that what we may now call the right of conscience is prior to, and superior than, the state’s pronouncements.

Indeed, Coakley’s statement that “the law says people are allowed to have [religious freedom]” is exactly backwards, and reflects an astonishing ignorance of American political tradition. The law does not allow people their religious freedom. Rather, as the Founders contemplated and as American have lived for more than two centuries, the law merely recognizes the primacy of religious belief and individual conscience. To hold otherwise would imply that the state could stop allowing religious freedom, and still act morally.

A state that does not “allow” religious freedom does not deny its existence, but merely is acting tyrannically; the freedom for each person to seek God is inherent in our natures and does not need state allowance. This is something Catholic teaching has always recognized, and is enshrined as well in our constitutional tradition. Coakley seems unaware of this background.

Coakley’s statement is of a piece with this secularized way of thinking and, for that reason alone, should be scrutinized carefully. However, in a way it is even more ominous. For Coakley seems to imply that if Catholics cannot go along with acts they believe to be immoral, they should just stop working in hospitals.

This is tantamount to saying that Catholics need not perform the corporal works of mercy, as they are charged to do, in a secular society. Coakley’s apparent position misunderstands not only history, but also the nature of religious belief: Some Catholics have a calling to be doctors, and all are charged with helping those in need. Coakley would close off this constitutionally protected avenue of acting on one’s faith.

It is small step from there to say that Catholics should not participate in discussing policy questions, because in so doing they must act on their religious beliefs. This conclusion that takes on new meaning in light of the ongoing debate over health care, whose impact on the Catholic health-care system remains to be seen.

Coakley’s statement would be more shocking were it not so distressingly common. Catholics, however, should be aware that the consequences of such thinking, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, may very well be a restricted sphere of religious belief.

Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the
Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University.