Atticus Finch Teaches a Lesson in Conscience Rights

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule,” he says in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, “is a person’s conscience.”

Gregory Peck portrays Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck portrays Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (photo: Universal Pictures/Wikimedia Commons)

When my dearest friend asked me to join her virtual book club, I said “Sure!” She’s the kind of friend for whom I’d walk over broken glass — but, moments after I said yes, I thought to myself: “What was I thinking? I’ve got seven school-aged kids still at home, mountains of laundry to do every day, and a full-time job.”

But, because our friendship means so much to me and I am not one to walk away from a “Sure!”, I've stayed in the book club. And I'm glad I did.

Thank goodness for audiobooks. I’ve been able to keep up with the “reading” as I walk the family black Labrador puppy. (Again, what was I thinking?) The third book in our list is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I know everybody’s supposed to have read this in high school, but I can’t honestly remember whether I did. For me, Atticus Finch had always been the irresistible Gregory Peck.

Anyway, this time Atticus mesmerized me for a different reason. His legal skill in his defense of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of the rape of a white woman, is superb. I’m a lawyer, and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such acumen in a courtroom.

So much injustice was built into the “judicial system” in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, that truth had a difficult time being noticed. But Atticus goes beyond scoring legal points. He also teaches his two young children, and the townspeople of Maycomb, about the rights of conscience and how to exercise them. 

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience,” he told Scout, his daughter. Robinson’s case, explained Atticus, “is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience.” And despite the general (and quite noisy) opinion of friends and neighbors on the matter, he was convinced of his moral obligation. “Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.”

Eighty years have passed since the period in which Lee’s story is set. And yet, we are again struggling to protect matters of conscience. It’s true that recently two challenges to Obamacare rules requiring doctors and benefits groups to perform, refer for, or cover the cost of “gender reassignment procedures” have been brought to court. Both have been successful so far. But don’t count on these legal successes being the end of the matter.

If you don’t believe me, just think about the plight of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Despite repeated victories in the Supreme Court for the sisters, President Biden promised on the campaign trail to rescind federal rules exempting employers such as these nuns who object to the inclusion of abortifacients in their employee health insurance plans. 

Politicians at the federal level are not the only threat to conscience. Cities and states across the country have been telling private social service organizations that they can operate only if they leave their convictions at the door. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s foster care program has fought its way to the Supreme Court in defense of conscience rights and religious freedom. Other agencies working with the city acquiesced.

Conscience objectors face increasingly intolerant government officials. They are also often at odds with popular opinion. So what should they do?

Atticus Finch offers some fine advice. Anticipating the nagging of an elderly neighbor, Atticus tells his son Jem, “Whatever she says to you, it's your job not to let her make you mad." He also advised his feisty daughter Scout about his defense of Robinson: “You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don't let 'em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.”

Atticus’ good counsel went beyond just cautioning restraint. He also encouraged patience and forgiveness. In the days leading up to the trial of Robinson, he waved off an angry mob gathering in front of Maycomb’s jailhouse. His children were by his side. “A mob’s always made up of people,” Atticus told his son Jem the next morning at the breakfast table. “Every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people you know.” 

And then he flatly commanded both children not to bear a grudge, “no matter what happens.” That’s going to be quite a challenge for protectors of conscience rights in the coming months, I suspect. Let’s see if we can meet it.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is the director of the Conscience Project.