It’s been a long time since there has been this much fundamental disagreement in America over the nature of liberty. Judging by recent events, many Americans no longer value our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Where did this disregard originate, what worldview underlies it, and how can we fight it? These are the questions I plan to address in this post.
First, there is a reason that freedom of speech and religion are combined in the First Amendment. While freedom of religion involves the right to pray and worship as one chooses, religion is not a strictly private matter. It is not enough to say, “Believe what you want, just keep it to yourself,” a new twist on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Religious freedom is primarily the freedom to live according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. We don’t surrender this right when we step out of our mosques, churches, synagogues, or private homes. Even atheists and agnostics have the right to come to their own conclusions on moral issues, to not be compelled by the state to participate in behavior they find morally questionable, and to voice their opinions on matters of conscience.
So how can Americans, whose country’s very existence was founded on the belief that we are endowed with rights by the “Law of Nature and of Nature’s God,” be so quick to denounce and even condemn them?
I believe the answer to this question is two-fold. First, a people will only voluntarily surrender a right if they believe doing so is necessary to secure a greater, more important right. Second, one’s conception of liberty depends on one’s understanding of truth itself. There is a deeper moral and philosophical conflict underlying our political debates.
Every high school government class is likely to contain some discussion of how certain rights can often conflict with others. It is the role of the law to define and adjudicate where one person’s rights end and another’s begin. For example, one could reasonably renounce the “right” to steal from one’s neighbor in exchange for the right to be secure in one’s own possessions. But this only shows that the right to steal is not a God-given, inalienable one, or else it could not by definition be forfeited.
What “rights”, then, are so important that a bill entitled the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” could possibly become the subject of a national debate? Since when did religious freedom become controversial?
To hear the outcry in the media, one would think RFRA proponents were claiming the unlimited right to religion, but this is clearly not the case. One has only to read the text of the law, going back to the original bill signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993. RFRA laws simply state that if the government is going to impinge upon your right to religion, it must have a very good reason to do so, a “compelling government interest.”
For example, it is illegal in this country for people under twenty-one to consume alcoholic beverages. Yet children as young as seven receive Holy Communion at Mass. The government has correctly judged that keeping a child from having a sip of what many would consider wine (but that Catholics regard as Christ’s holy blood) is not a compelling enough interest to prevent the practice of a crucial aspect of the Catholic faith.
On the other hand, it is easy to envision a scenario in which the government might reasonably conclude that one’s right to freedom of religion does not include the right to polygamous marriage (as in the case of Islam and Mormon fundamentalism) or the traditional Aztec practice of human sacrifice. The government has a compelling interest in protecting the well-being of children and the lives of would-be victims.
Again, nothing too advanced here. The reason religious freedom has fallen out of vogue is not its complexity, but rather its apparent conflict with the gay rights movement.
Unfortunately, the focus of the gay rights movement has shifted from defending the rights of gay Americans to embrace a homosexual lifestyle free from discrimination and persecution– to live and love as they choose– to the right to do so without anyone voicing so much as a word of criticism or objection. After considering (and rejecting) a strategy that would have promoted civil unions as a legal protection for gay and lesbian partnerships, liberals now claim the right to redefine marriage, an institution as old as human society itself, to suit the sexual and emotional needs of homosexual adults.
Anyone who so much as breaths a word of caution at what would undoubtedly be one of the largest social experiments in human history is mocked as backward, bigoted, and “on the wrong side of history.” Anyone who dares defend the traditional understanding of marriage is roundly chastised on social media, subjected to intimidation and threats, and targeted for financial ruin.
Despite earlier promises and reassurances, the power of the state is now being used not only to silence religious opposition to the redefinition of marriage, but to require participation in what amounts to government-mandated speech. Baking a cake, photographing a ceremony, and even arranging flowers are forms of speech requiring the creative energies of the baker, photographer, and florist. Declining to participate in same-sex ceremonies, or any ceremonies for that matter, is not discrimination; it is the constitutionally-protected right of every American citizen.
Why is this so difficult for people to understand?
It is a sad reality that college campuses, which should be the most open to debate and even controversy, have instead led the charge in the attack on freedom of speech. Many young Americans no longer see the importance of protecting speech they and their friends in the echo-chamber of liberal elitism disagree with. It is easy to picture the fervent nineteen-year-old student tilting her head in confusion at the notion that even unpopular views deserve protection. “Why would you want to protect the right to be wrong?”
All sorts of excuses are given for limiting unpopular (usually conservative) speech. The first is to label it as “hate,” reducing traditional Christians to the level of Neo-Nazis and the KKK. (In Canada, it is now a hate crime to advocate a traditional definition of marriage or to quote the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality.) The second is to trot out the lie that appeals to traditional morality are dangerous and intolerant, as they may damage the fragile self-esteem of anyone who is not a “privileged” heterosexual white Christian male.
But scratch beneath the surface, and one discovers a radical metaphysical and epistemological shift underlying the culture wars. Traditional Christian morality rests upon an understanding of natural law, the idea that reality is absolute and that objective truth can be discovered outside of one’s subjective feelings using the human faculties of reason and observation. On the other hand, those who share a progressive worldview regard reality as just a powerful illusion, and truth therefore a social construct. It is not fixed or eternal—not handed down by a divine Creator. Rather, we are the collective creators, and truth is whatever the majority of people in a society say it is. To borrow a line from Orwell, using this standard, 2+2 can equal 5.
Because the liberal basis for truth is so tenuous, resting on such a fragile foundation as popular opinion, all dissenting voices must be singled out for ridicule and then silenced, lest they supplant liberalism as the dominant narrative. Inconvenient facts must be suppressed in the name of whatever generally agreed-upon Higher Cause. Dogmas are propagated in the absence of biological or physical evidence (for example, the notion that a man can become a woman, or that a fetus developing in the womb is not a person).
On the other hand, the best conservative and Christian thinkers are not afraid of challenges to their positions. They can rest assured that the truth will not change, regardless of whether they lose this particular debate on this particular day. Moral relativists enjoy no such reassurances, resulting in a cauldron of insecurity and doubt simmering under a veneer of artificial confidence. Tolerance is not enough; all must be active participants in the creation of this artificial “truth.” This metaphysical insecurity explains the paradox of the intolerant Left, which only tolerates relatively insignificant differences in appearance, but not the more meaningful differences in belief. They will accept any combination of sexual and gender identity (hence the diversity designation LGBT-QIA), but not a difference in opinion, especially if it comes from a member of a specially-protected victim group.
In conclusion, our natural rights to life and liberty are being subverted. In their place, Americans are being offered an array of artificial, man-made “rights,” mainly the “right” to engage in any and all sexual activity (pre-marital, homosexual, polygamous, adulterous) while being freed from the consequences of said activities (contraception, abortion). But this is only symptomatic of an erroneous understanding of morality, based not on a rational understanding of natural law, but rather a “might makes right” approach to truth itself.
What is needed now is not just a reordering of the hierarchy of competing rights, but also a proper understanding of where those rights originate.
I began this post by observing that it has been a long time since Americans were this divided on the nature of liberty, but this is by no means the first time. Just over a hundred and fifty years ago, serious individuals actually debated whether a person had the right to own another human being. A slave’s right to liberty was considered by many to fall below the slave owner’s right to own property.
Our rights come not from society or even the law, but from our Creator, as clearly stated the Declaration of Independence. We can discover these rights using our God-given faculties of reason or “common sense”; they are thus “self-evident.” It does not take a doctoral degree in philosophy to understand that people are born and have a right to be free, but it takes a clever perversion of the law to argue that a man can own another man. Even a child intuitively knows that the life of a brother or sister growing in his mother’s womb is a human being worthy of protection, a “baby,” but it takes decades of social conditioning and some very convoluted Constitutional jujitsu to fabricate the right to end that life, often for no better reason than convenience.
Those who today speak with such confidence about being “on the right side of history” would do well to recall that abolition and emancipation were once unpopular and controversial views that many sought to silence. The loudest voices demanding an end to slavery were not secular ones, but Christians who felt compelled to carry their moral convictions into the public square. In the end, the natural right to freedom prevailed; not because it was popular, but because it was right in its conformity to natural law.