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FIRST-PERSON: The role of conscience in politics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) -- It was not too long ago that some in the political arena claimed that individual character did not matter, especially in regard to leadership. Now at least one elected official is declaring disdain for individuals who seek to live according to the moral dictates of conscience.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently blasted lawmakers who voted in favor of the Protect Life Act by saying, "When the Republicans vote for this bill today, they will be voting to say that women can die on the floor and health-care providers do not have to intervene.... It's just appalling."

Later in an interview with The Washington Post, Pelosi was asked if her comments concerning the Protect Life Act had gone too far. She stood by her previous statement and said, "They would" , she said. "They would! Again, whatever their intention is, this is the effect."

Pelosi went on to tell The Post, "I'm a devout Catholic and I honor my faith and love it ... but they have this conscience thing" that puts women at physical risk.

According to, one of the provisions in the Protect Life Act ensures that state laws "protecting conscience rights, restricting or prohibiting abortion or coverage or funding of abortion, or establishing procedural requirements on abortion" are not canceled or repealed by the 2010 health care law

The Protect Life Act also protects the pro-life conscience rights of health-care workers and institutions, such as religious ones.

It is those provisions that have rendered Pelosi apoplectic and claiming conservatives voting for the measure would have women die rather than have an abortion and decrying Catholics for having a conscience on such matters.

Since Pelosi not only made her inflammatory statement during a weekly legislative briefing, but went on to reiterate and clarify it, we can only assume she has articulated exactly what she believes on the matter.


It is hard to imagine anyone, much less an elected official, who would speak with such disregard and disdain for the reality of individual conscience. A civil society is only possible if individuals operate on the basis of a well-formed and moral conscience.

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, conscience is defined as "a person's moral sense of right and wrong." The word "conscience" derives etymologically from the Latin "conscientia," meaning "privity of knowledge" or "with knowledge". The English word implies internal awareness of a moral standard in an individual's mind concerning the quality of motives and actions.

The formation of conscience is based on a shared societal understanding that certain actions and attitudes are positive and others are negative and even criminal.

The conscience of a person is shaped by instruction in, and enforcement of, the shared understandings of right and wrong, beginning in the home and reinforced by other societal intuitions, i.e. church, school, etc.

"Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people," declared John Adams. "It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Adam's sentiment was shared by the vast majority of his contemporaries.

America's Founders believed the Bible was the indispensible tool for forming a moral conscience. And they understood that it was only a well-formed conscience that would allow the individual to practice self-governance and self-restraint.


"We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government," said James Madison. The Founders believed that if citizens were to experience liberty, it would require that each individual act in a morally responsible manner.

If society is going to function properly and experience the utmost freedom, the accepted norm must be individuals living lives and making decisions based on a well-formed, moral conscience.

A well-formed conscience is consistent. It does not turn itself off and on. It does not capitulate.

When Pelosi criticizes people of faith for having a conscience when it comes to participating in abortion, she shows either a lack of understanding of what constitutes a well-formed conscience or she is willing to accept as normal an unstable, schizophrenic view of conscience.

Pelosi's claim that conservatives voting to preserve the right to conscience of health care workers and medical facilities is tantamount to wanting women to die is one of the most outlandish and hyperbolic statements I have ever heard.

Pelosi's logic is the polar opposite of the thinking of America's Founders. Consider the following written by George Washington in a letter dated Sept. 14, 1775: "While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to him only in this case they are answerable."


Regardless of what any politician declares, conscience and character do matter. In fact, they go together. You cannot have one without the other.

A person void of conscience and/or character is capable of almost any vice and should not be trusted. The same goes for a person who would dismiss these two vital elements of human development. Both individuals are, to borrow a word from the minority leader, appalling.

Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press


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