Over last weekend, I saw the new Mel Gibson flick “Hacksaw Ridge.” Gruesome and at times overshadowed by lead actor Andrew Garfield’s awkwardness, “Hacksaw Ridge” was an ode to the age-old American custom of protecting dissent by protecting the conscience.
In an age when attacks upon conscience and religious liberty grow more and more fiery, the true tale of World War II hero Desmond Doss’ conscientious objection to killing is a reminder of the difficult stakes involved in ensuring that individual liberty is the presumption that government takes toward individuals, even during war.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is the story of Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist whose religion prohibited taking the life of a fellow human being. Doss, obviously a patriot, felt obligated to serve in World War II as a medic. Where war is the business of taking life, Doss saw his role as helping save lives. That he does, as his heroism is on full display in his military record and receiving the Medal of Honor from President Truman.
Embellished accounts aside, the movie portrays the cost of staying true to conscience. Doss endures beatings, is accused of cowardice, is mocked for his pacifism, and is treated with general contempt and hostility by his fellow soldiers. But Doss stays true to himself and never violates his conscience. Here are a few observations from Doss and “Hacksaw Ridge” on why protecting conscience is vital to the American experiment.
1. The Conscience Is Sacred
Doss arrived at his pacifism through religious conviction. It was an ethical precept he arrived at by religious devotion and piety, which means his pacifism was not something arbitrarily considered. Throughout the movie, the tattered Bible he carried with him everywhere he went symbolized the solemnity of his beliefs. Standing before a court martial, he was willing to go to jail for his convictions.
This is important today because so much hostility is based in rejecting religious motivation around contentious issues such as sexuality. Liberals are inclined to believe that any and all opposition to the ever-expanding lexicon of the sexual revolution is based in animus. That’s hogwash. Today’s dissenters from the sexual revolution have no use for animus. Rather, they believe the purposes of sexuality and human embodiment are different than what secular progressivism teaches.
Doss’ sincerity is a reminder that the convictions people arrive at by religious motivation are not designed to be capricious, but are ordered toward certain ends that people will naturally disagree about.
2. Conviction Originates In the Conscience
Onlookers mocked Doss and tried to get him to pick up a weapon at several points throughout the movie. He would not. He was duty-bound by reason of conscience. For Doss to have brandished a weapon would not have only violated his morality, it would have offended his conscience.
At one point, one of Doss’ defenders states something to the effect that the conscience comprises the whole of one’s identity. Doss’ witness is a reminder that the conscience is the center of conviction because it is central in apprehending duty and moral obligation. To go against the conscience greatly harms a person. It is akin to being made to believe that one’s oppressor is one’s benefactor.
3. It’s Good to Accommodate People’s Consciences
When almost court-martialed for insubordination, Doss insists that his desire all along was to be a medic. This request was eventually approved. In the movie, we see the U.S. government preserve a man’s conscience by assigning him a duty that did not violate it. The U.S. government was right to accommodate Doss where accommodations can be made. In this move, it recommitted itself to an important principle at the heart of our constitutional system: The presumption of liberty.
This means it is government’s burden to prove infringing upon a person’s liberty is absolutely necessary. In Doss’ case, it was deemed unessential for him to carry a weapon, so he served in a different capacity. This is at the heart of legislation like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which puts the burden on the government to prove its case and make every last accommodation where possible.
4. Protecting Conscience Rights Can Protect Service to Others
Doss didn’t shirk his patriotic duty. At several points through the movie, he states to his family and his protesting fiancé that he is obligated out of his own conscience to serve in battle. Doss simply perceived his duty in a different way: to save lives. In an age where it is popular to scare-quote religious liberty and insult the idea altogether, this portrayal of Doss shows his freedom of conscience resulted in serving his neighbors.
Such is the case today in countless ways where people are made to choose between their conscience and their livelihood. Those seeking religious liberty today have no objection to serving their neighbors in a personal capacity. They object to being compelled to engage in speech or action against their conscience. One central reason religious liberty exists is to provide the space for religious organizations to serve their neighbors in a way that upholds the institution’s conscience and mission.
5. Protecting Conscience Means Developing Empathy for Others’ Convictions
As the movie’s plot develops, Doss’ fellow soldiers come to understand that his motives aren’t sinister. They realize that, when freed to live faithfully, Doss is there to help save their lives. Throughout this, and when they learn of his sincerity, his enemies-turned-friends gained a greater understanding of Doss’ convictions. They came to understand the force of his resolve, which dampens their mockery.
In one visceral scene in particular, Doss and the most intense warrior in his battalion are in a foxhole together. There, in seeing Doss’ devotion to sacrifice and conscience, his enemy-turned-friend makes lighthearted gestures recognizing that Doss’ motives are pure. In the crucible of conflict, progress occurs.
As in the case of Doss, protecting conscience doesn’t mean you will agree with the conscience you’re protecting. In fact, disagreement underscores the very need for protection. If conscience and religious liberty are simply ideas our society supports when popular, such protections are easily undone.
6. Protecting Conscience Protects Everyone
One walks away from the movie with the very real sense that World War II soldiers fought to preserve the liberties that individuals like Doss enjoyed and put on display. This theme rang consistently throughout the movie, as the soldiers going to war understood that the very concept of liberty itself was on the verge of elimination.
Indeed, this is a central truth in today’s culture wars over religious liberty. Religious liberty and the freedom of conscience require everyone to hang together, or hang separately. The infringement of one man’s conscience can just as easily lead to the infringement of someone else’s conscience. This is why it is absolutely necessary for people of different faiths and of no faith to support one another’s right to religious liberty and the freedom of conscience.
Hollywood will surely not admit it, but it just reawakened the moral imagination for “Hacksaw Ridge” audiences to see why protecting conscience is at the heart of being American. It’s a beautiful thing when someone uses his conscience to serve others selflessly. So thanks, Hollywood, for reminding us that constitutional rights are better than the mockery you often put forth against faithful Americans.
Now, if only Hollywood and the actors comprising it would practice what they are preaching.