Giving Up Our Natural Rights for Artificial Ones

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.

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Support for Traditional Marriage Motivated by Love, Not Hate

This used to be the one hot-button political issue I really didn’t care to talk about. My position on the matter could best be summarized with an apathetic shrug. I had liberal friends in college who fought passionately for gay marriage, convinced their cause was the next great civil rights battle. I had members of my family and church who fought passionately against it. I didn’t really care either way. Could we just change the subject, please?

It’s not that I was afraid to offend someone or uninterested in moral debates. Since I was in middle school, I have been willing to debate the pro-life position with anyone, at anytime, unafraid of how unpopular my defense of unborn life might be. I had the power of the Truth, capital T, behind me. I knew abortion was wrong, and I knew it mattered. Innocent lives hung in the balance, and refusing to speak up for the voiceless was something I wouldn’t contemplate.

But as the debate over gay marriage heated up and the tide of public opinion began to coalesce around the idea, my apathy turned to discomfort. As a libertarian-minded conservative, I didn’t like the government telling people what they couldn’t do. It was hard to answer the question of: why can’t a same sex couple marry?

I had several answers to the question of: why can’t a woman abort her child? The logic was easy, not because I was an expert in ethics, but because the fact that an unborn baby is a human life is obvious even to children and has been proven over and over again by science. One could quote scripture or get into the theology of the issue, but to do so was not strictly necessary. But every argument against gay marriage sounded judgmental or hypocritical or hopelessly dated.

I didn’t come around to the importance of the issue until I myself was married with children, until I learned that love is not a feeling but a commitment that requires sacrifice. Even then, it took a few years for me to be able to articulate my stance on the issue. That’s when I realized that the logic was off because the question was wrong. Instead of asking “Why can’t a gay couple marry?” I should have been asking, “What is marriage, and what is its purpose?”

The first phrasing puts all the burden of proof on the traditional marriage side. Gay marriage is good until you can prove it is not. It also sets you up to deny someone something they want. Once you start denying someone something they claim as a right, you put yourself in the camp of the 1950s segregationists who fought to keep blacks and whites from attending the same schools, much less marrying. It is the wrong way to approach the question.

So let’s return to the second phrasing, the one that should be at the heart of any policy debate. What is marriage, and what is its purpose?

Unfortunately, our culture seems to have forgotten the truth about the essence and purpose of marriage. Many today would answer that marriage is just a committed relationship between two people, the purpose of which is simply to make each other happy.

And what is the result of this misconception? People marry and divorce at will. Some have kids, others don’t. Some live together and have children without marrying. They stay together for a few years, until one party leaves or something better comes along. Our culture encourages the relentless pursuit of each individual’s pleasure, happiness, and fulfillment. When my partner no longer meets my needs, I move on to someone who can. The so-called “modern family” is a hodgepodge of people whose lives are thrown together for the time being by a series of circumstances. Fathers are absent and seem unnecessary. Where there is a breakdown in the ability to provide for women and children, the government steps in to pick up the slack.

So, what is marriage really, and what is its purpose? I would offer that marriage is a permanent monogamous commitment between a man and a woman for the purpose of creating and raising children. This legal definition is broad enough to encompass members of all the major world religions as well as people who are not religious. According to my faith, marriage is also a sacrament made in the presence of God (and thus, God is present in marriage). The purpose of Christian marriage is also to help the other person grow in Christ’s love in a way that only someone of the opposite sex can.

Traditional marriage respects the fact that men and women are fundamentally different in their natures. This is not to say that one is superior and one is inferior. It is not to return to 1950s stereotypes or deny women career opportunities. It merely acknowledges a biological reality. Men help women learn to nurture and care for others, while women help men learn to protect and provide. Without marriage, neither man nor woman can truly develop these gifts to their fullest. The instincts to nurture and protect lie deep within our DNA, but they need to be awakened or activated. Having a wife and a family inspire men to make sacrifices for their well-being and safety. A married man would go to war to defend his wife and children. He would work long hours of hard labor to ensure they are well-fed and sheltered. That same man, in the absence of a family, might decide to pursue his own well-being and pleasure instead.

holy-family

Now, a few caveats. I mean no disrespect to single people. There are many single men and women who are very nurturing and brave in the absence of marriage. Most of us, however, need a little encouragement if we are to reach our true potential. I was not a particularly nurturing person before I met my husband and had children. I am still independent and strong-willed (and on my bad days selfish and oblivious), but I am now able to recognize and respond to the needs of others in a way that I never was before marriage. Likewise, my husband saw his protective instincts surge after the birth of our sons, and he started working twice as hard.

It used to be obvious that the creation of children required a man and a woman. Modern science has separated sex from procreation in a way that previous generations couldn’t have imagined. A woman can now go to a sperm donor and be inseminated with the DNA of a complete stranger. But even if science has given us the ability to create life outside of the act of love, years of research in the social sciences and numerous studies have failed to deliver a law as well-supported as this: Nothing is better for the long-term mental, emotional, and financial well-being of a child than to be raised by a married mother and father. Here are 30 simple statistics to support this. Also, it is becoming well-documented that growing up without a father is much more harmful to boys than girls. See here and here.

Again for the caveats. There are many couples who struggle with fertility issues and for one reason or another cannot have biological children. Some may choose to adopt, while others may assist in the raising of nieces and nephews. The inability to have children does not make a marriage less valid, as it still serves the first purpose of helping one’s spouse grow in Christ and contributes to society in numerous ways.

To state the basic truth that children do best in households with a married mother and father once again runs the risk of sounding outdated and judgmental. What about all the single moms who are doing their best? President Obama likes to point out that he himself was raised by grandparents and a single mom, and yet he rose to the highest office in the land. Yet he has also acknowledged that he would have liked to have had a father around. What child wouldn’t? Single parents or grandparents raising children are doing admirable work. But they will be the first to admit that there are difficulties in having to be both mom and dad, the nurturer and the provider at once. For a gay couple to make the decision to create a human life outside of the bond of marital love, a child that will never know a mother and/or father, for the purposes of fulfilling their own desires and needs, fundamentally misses the point. The marriage exists to serve the children; the children do not exist to serve the needs of the individuals in the marriage.

So, back to the marriage debate. When people say that a man should be able to marry another man, or a woman marry another woman, they are proposing a radical redefinition of the very understanding of marriage. The burden of proof should be on them to explain how this is even possible. If marriage is understood as a committed monogamous permanent relationship between a man and a woman, then “gay marriage” makes as much sense as a “male girl” or a “married bachelor.” By definition, it isn’t possible. To say so does not reflect “hatred” or “prejudice.”

I decided to finally write my opinion on this for two audiences.

First, for my liberal friends, especially those who are not religious. I do not expect to convince you to support traditional marriage. But you should not look at all traditional marriage supporters as bigots or homophobes. You should not push the Christian religion into the same camp as the KKK. Please respect that our position comes from our deeply held religious beliefs that are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. We will fight the political battle over what our government should recognize as a marriage, but let’s not demonize the other side or impugn their motives. You should be able to eat a Chick-Fil-A sandwich without feeling like you are aiding the enemy.

Second, for my conservative and religious friends. Don’t get stuck in the trap of trying to explain why gay people shouldn’t be able to marry. Instead, steer the conversation to the essence and purpose of marriage. It makes me sad that a friend once felt the need on Facebook to post something along the lines of “I’m a Christian, but I don’t hate gay people.” When you say things like that, it gives credence to the lie that all Christians are hateful and homophobic until otherwise proven. Surely there are some who are, but they are a minority. You can support your gay friends and still defend traditional marriage. Laws can be passed against discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and allowing committed gay couples to visit each other in hospital rooms without redefining marriage.

Why does the marriage debate matter? I think most of the “same-sex” or “marriage equality” crowd are committed idealists who believe in what they are fighting for. Some have bought the argument that opposing gay marriage is tantamount to opposing interracial marriage (which is false). Some are themselves homosexual and seeking the affirmation of their peers. But I fear that there are some liberals and secularists who seek to use the gay marriage issue to undermine Christianity. The scary truth is, it’s working. And as Christians, this should concern us. Some have taken Jefferson’s prescription for a “wall of separation between Church and state” to argue that religion has no place in our laws or institutions, something our founders never intended. This misreading would pit the First Amendment against itself, as Christians would have their free speech violated. But the idea of marriage as an institution between a man and a woman is not unique to Christianity. It is as old as society itself and predates civilization.

Love is not a fleeting emotion. It is a commitment; it is a sacrifice. Love helps us grow as individuals and holds us together as a society. Love has both a soft and a hard nature, the nurturing love of a mother and the stern at times but always protecting love of a father. Supporters of traditional marriage must base our defense of the institution in this love, and in God’s love for us—all of us, regardless of sexual orientation. Hatred of any kind has no place in it.