Much of the media noise about the outrageous anti-circumcision decision, recently handed down by a Cologne court, has focused on its impact on German Jews and Muslims – naturally enough since those are the groups most immediately and directly affected.
At a recent conference on the subject in Berlin, Pinchas Goldschmidt labeled the ruling a "frontal attack on Jewish life in Europe." And so indeed it inevitably is. He went on, however, to make the larger point that this is "part of a trend of mounting intolerance against religious practices in Europe."
This secularist hostility has found legal expression in the ideology of individual rights, for centuries now the long-standing rival of more traditional notions of human beings as social, communal creatures, who need - and can truly thrive only - in social and communal relationships. An ideology of individual rights that rejects such a social and communitarian understanding of human existence posits purely isolated autonomous individuals. These individuals may, of course, elect to enter into relationships of various sorts by their own free choice; but they remain ultimately individuals – their individual autonomy, their freedom from social and communal bonds being “protected” by the all-powerful liberal State. For the inevitable corollary of a world which can comprehend only individuals is the devaluing of all traditional social institutions and communal bonds (beginning with the family), thus stripping public life of the vast network of “mediating” structures which have traditionally occupied much of our social space – the space between the individual and the State.
That is why the unfortunate controversy created recently in the U.S. by the Administration’s contraception mandate matters so much. If this particular exercise in left-wing social engineering succeeds, then religiously motivated organizations of all sorts - religiously sponsored schools, adoption agencies, nursing homes, hospitals, psychological counseling centers, immigrant services, etc., - may eventually find themselves with no morally acceptable alternative but to shut down. That would definitely deprive many of our most vulnerable fellow citizens of material services that benefit them – and by extension benefit the entire society. In doing so it would, of course, also make the State that much more powerful - but society that much weaker.
So these issues go beyond such immediate topical flashpoints as contraception or circumcision. And their long-term effect extends beyond the particular religious groups immediately impacted. The point is not that the State should be weak, but that it should not be absolute, and that other entities - natural communities (e.g., the family) and social relationships and communitarian networks (e.g., religious communities) - should flourish.
One small step towards sanity in this matter would be to practice a consistent commitment in public policy to what we (and many other nations) all signed on to, way back in 1948 - in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”