Conservatives have a hard time taking the liberal line on the HHS contraception mandate seriously. Isn’t it simply lunatic to argue that failing to subsidize birth control is tantamount to restricting women’s sexual freedom — that it’s punishing women for having sex?

Yet it isn’t lunatic at all, not according to the logic of subsidy that Republicans and all too many Christian conservatives, no less than Democrats and liberals, generally accept. And framing this issue primarily as one of religious liberty won’t give conservatives an easy win; far from it, doing so will only aggravate liberals and alienate a great many women, including religious ones.

Think of how this would play out if food subsidies, rather than insurance mandates, were at issue. There’s an obesity epidemic, we’re told, and obesity leads to lots of medical problems that even the fit have to pay for since private insurance and government entitlements spread the expense. Democrats propose that rather than having too many people on food stamps, we don’t have enough: if everyone were on food stamps, there would be no more stigma, and government could regulate the program to ensure that everyone had at least one healthy meal a day.

Republicans, displaying their typical fidelity to free markets, come back with an alternative proposal: it would be socialism if government were to enact this scheme directly, and it would certainly call for higher taxes. But if there’s an individual mandate for people to buy a “healthy meal plan,” that’s ok, and there can also be a mandate that employers provide their employees with a choice of healthy meal plans. This is ok because Republicans generally understand choice, even coerced choice among limited alternatives, as the definition of freedom. (Cf. not only Romneycare, but perennial movement-conservative proposals to voucherize education and semi-privatize social security.)

So, do churches have to offer kosher or halal meal plans? Maybe they get an exemption: it’s understood that their own employees will generally be members of the faith. But what about church-owned businesses and other entities — Catholic hospitals and charities, for example? Does Uncle Sam tell a Jewish neurosurgeon: You work for a Catholic hospital, and you have to buy a meal plan, but the hospital doesn’t have to offer a plan that includes certain choices that are very important to you; you have to pay out of pocket for that.

Some doctors would take offense at this. But many would never even notice the absence of the privilege, and even those who did would not necessarily feel discriminated against: perhaps church-owned institutions have made their decision on purely business grounds. Halal and kosher meals are an extra expense, after all. The situation looks altogether more sinister, however, if by default — owing to a government mandate — halal and kosher meals are covered, but churches and church-owned businesses then organize for the specific purpose of revoking this requirement. Suddenly Jewish and Muslim employees will have good cause to wonder why their needs are so objectionable, especially considering that they are being effectively taxed (albeit by their employer, not directly by the state) for the meal plans they are forced to buy.

Social conservatives believe that religious liberty and claims of conscience trump all. But notice how such a claim in this case would actually give the dispute a darker tint: denying Jews and Muslims the meals that are important to their ways of life on fiscal grounds would be an exercise in heartless utilitarianism. But to do so on religious grounds looks a lot like bigotry. And in real life, where the HHS regulations are concerned, there’s a clash between the religious liberty asserted by Christian conservatives and the newfangled reproductive freedom asserted by liberals. How does one weigh a rights claim against another rights claim? Power decides — a savage political and media struggle must ensue.

This is bad for conservatives on two grounds. First, the highly emotional identity politics that results will not be good for the deliberative temperament that’s vital for keeping power in check a democratized republic. Even if the right “wins,” discourse will be degraded. Second, winning is not very likely considering the tendency of human nature, the nature of popular government in general, and the specifically liberal architecture of our government today. These fundamentals militate against America becoming an ethically Christian republic in any durable sense, even one broadly defined.

In short, the battle is lost as soon as the logic of subsidy is conceded. Subsidies and mandates create new moral clashes that are only resolved by power, and power in a democracy does not favor difficult standards of any sort.

Now, birth control may not matter to women as a part of their way of life in quite the same way as kosher meals matter to Jews as part of theirs, but is it still a thing of great personal importance? In many cases, yes, and not just where liberal women are concerned. Single women who are Christian and conservative can also feel quite strongly about this, even if they’re not sexually active. Whether or not they want to live in a certain way, they don’t want men in Washington or the bosses who select their health-insurance options to be the ones making the decision. Quite apart from the substance of the issue, it’s procedurally demeaning.

There’s also this psychological fact to take into account: people with strong values are likely to feel more ashamed than most of doing things that disagree with those values, and additional guilt trips meted out, even inadvertently, by men in authority will provoke resentment. It’s a thorny subject, all the more so considering the unequal standard that exists among most religious people, no less than secular ones, when it comes to the connotations of the words “slut” and “stud.” (Would a female politician with the checkered sexual past of a Newt Gingrich be as popular with his voters?) Married conservative women may be largely free from suspicion about their reputations. Liberals perhaps care less about expectations (though not necessarily). Single conservative and Christian women, on the other hand, are acutely jeopardized: little less than perfection is expected. One dead Turk can ruin everything. So yes, they can feel just as strongly as liberal feminists about this, even if they’re less likely to say so. The discreet possibility of an alternative to traditional virtue is, for many, an essential escape hatch, even if one they prefer never to use.

All of which leads to the nigh inevitable conclusion that most insurance policies are sooner or later going to cover birth control. If HHS isn’t mandating it, the market will move in that direction of its own accord, which raises difficult questions about the nature of compulsion: if it’s tyranny when the government forces you to do something, what is it when the market gently pulls you toward a particular choice? The moral burdens are actually reversed — one is not very culpable for what one is forced to do; but what one does by neglect of one’s own values must weigh on the soul.

Even so, there are more possibilities on the market than there are in national government. The surest way to preserve the possibility of living according to religious values is by rejecting the logic of subsidy outright. Ironically, some Christian conservative leaders have been among the biggest advocates of subsidies in the form of “faith-based initiatives” and the Bush approach to putting federal dollars behind religious charities. Even when that works as a tactic, however — when it gives churches greater resources without immediately subjecting them to more restrictive regulation — it fails as a strategy because it leads social conservatives as well as liberals to look to Uncle Sam to bankroll morally worthy projects, be they soup kitchens for the homeless or health insurance and healthy meal plans for everybody. The ineradicable problem is that one man’s morally worthy project is a violation of another man’s, or woman’s, conscience.