Contesting Conscience: Private Beliefs and Public Policy since 1965

AHA Session 143
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Grand Hall C (Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Lower Level 2)
Jeremy Kessler, Columbia University Law School
Jeremy Kessler, Columbia University Law School

Session Abstract

Since the 1960s, the idea of conscientious objection has become a crucial battleground, reflecting and reshaping understandings of the public citizenship, equality, and the rule of law. This panel recovers the lost history of the conscience wars of the second half of the twentieth century, chronicling the rise and fall of competing ideas about the boundary between private beliefs and public obligations. 

Sara Dubow spotlights the congressional debates about religious exemptions and conscience clauses that unfolded between 1973 and 1974, exploring why some definitions of conscience gained support while others faded away. Studying the transformation of selective conscientious objection in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ronit Stahl turns to a different chapter of the conscience wars, moving from Congress to the courts. Mary Ziegler brings the story forward to the 1980s and 1990s, canvassing the rise of an antiabortion rescue movement that sparked a broader debate about civil disobedience and the authority of the law.

By tracing alternative visions of conscience, the papers complicate narratives about the role of religious objection in the modern culture wars. Contests about the source and limits of conscience crossed familiar political lines, forging alliances that defy contemporary political expectations. Nor, as the panel shows, was the progress of familiar ideas about conscience steady or predictable; dialogue in the faith groups, social-movement circles, the political arena, and the courts created winners and losers in the struggle to define conscientious objection. Finally, the papers reveal the sometimes contradictory costs and benefits of conscience politics. The conscience wars both subverted and reinforced leading ideas about when citizens could ethically resist legal authority. At times, changing concepts of conscientious objection reaffirmed an emerging commitment to pluralism and civic engagement. In other debates, conscience arguments obscured the material consequences for vulnerable Americans of allowing others to opt out.

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