How To Noisily Concede Your Liberty



I’m not advocating this, mind you.  Just observing how it’s done.  And there’s plenty to observe.

For many decades now we have been renegotiating the fundamental terms of how we are to live together in society.  It’s been a difficult, and oftentimes harsh, negotiation.  But the big issues, the issues that govern the details of living in society, are even now being conceded.  And that’s the thing of which I want to give you a sense here.

A battler of wits knows that his opponent’s most jealously-guarded territory consists of the basic principles that inform his argument.  Everything else is buffer.  If you can make it through the buffer to that core territory, you win.

So it is a matter of the gravest concern that conservatives, amongst whom I count myself, are habitually conceding core territory, while making a big show of contesting buffer zones.   Because of this, I was delighted to no end when I saw a dazzling ray of light go lancing through the dispiriting grey fugue that passes as conservatism’s front-line arguments.

Daniel Hannan, one of the West’s best friends, unapologetically reminded us just the other day of what makes us the West.  Well, “unapologetically” doesn’t really capture it – he celebrated it, and in doing so shows us how to conduct ourselves in this negotiation, should we wish to do better than we are:

If there’s one thing that distinguishes English-speaking civilization from all the rival models, it’s this: that the individual is lifted above the collective. The citizen is exalted over the state; the state is seen as his servant, not his master. If you wanted to encapsulate Anglosphere exceptionalism in a single phrase, you could do a lot worse than what John Adams said about the Massachusetts state constitution: “A government of laws, and not of men.” Except that those words were not John Adams’s; he was quoting a ­seventeenth-century English Whig, James Harrington—neat proof of the shared inheritance that binds us together.

This is core-territory stuff.  More than core, really.  It’s the West’s animating life-blood.  Give this up, and you’re just fiddling with the terms of surrender.  But we are giving it up, almost every time we open our mouths.  Here’s why.

We have devolved to a fractious bunch of blokes (to carry on the English theme) when we talk about liberty.  We speak of speech liberties, religious liberties, economic liberties (if we’re really committed), and many other adjectivalized liberties.  We marshal our arguments, our historical reference points, our anecdotes, and we set out to convince society at large that our chosen liberty is sufficiently important that we ought to be given space in which to exercise it.  And so it is that we lose before we even begin.

Currently, one of the high-profile points of negotiation that has everyone in a bunch is the relationship between same-sex couples and those who disapprove of the activity they represent.  The religious-liberty folks say their commitment to Jesus means they must not be dragooned into associating with activities offensive to Biblical norms.  That is, they aren’t challenging the dragooning, per se, they are asking for an exemption for the purpose of accommodating their religious sensitivities.  Let’s leave for another day how this might compare to Jesus’s decision to associate with the woman at the well, and concentrate instead on how utterly upside down, and self-defeating, this is.

Everything we say is freighted with sub-text, and history, and context, and relationship.  Most of it remains sotto voce because conversations would be too ungainly if we said all of it out loud.  But sometimes it’s helpful to pull the unsaid into the foreground so we can get a better grasp on what we are doing.  Regardless of what they think they are saying, here is what the religious liberty crowd is actually saying to the State:

We understand that same-sex couples have the right to compel people to serve them, and that – generally speaking – they may choose whom they wish to compel.  But as Christians we believe we should have the privilege of violating those rights when we conclude our religious tenets require it.  You know Christianity – it’s that religion you reject as a backwards superstition to which the unsophisticated and ignorant bitterly cling.  So you’ll grant our request, yes?

Not only is this unlikely to persuade anyone on its own terms, it presents the request as a concession of fundamental principles.  It assumes the State has the authority to compel you to serve someone against your will.  It concedes pride of place to the collective.  It comprehends a sea of collective authority in the midst of which we must raise and maintain individual islands of adjectival liberties against the sea’s acknowledged power to reclaim.

But if Hannan is right (and he is), then the defenders of adjectival liberties have confused the land for the water.  Our birthright is a sea of liberty in which we construct a few islands of collective authority to safeguard the sea.  And we always – always – retain the right to reclaim those islands should they fail to serve their purpose.  This is what it means to exalt the individual above the collective.

So if we are to have our liberty, we must stop defending adjectives.  As far as how we live together in society, religious liberties are not defensible because they are religious, but because they are part of the sea of liberty.  The same is true of free speech.  And economic liberty, freedom of association, and all the innumerable other ways in which we might conduct our affairs while recognizing the moral equality of our fellow man.

James Madison understood this when he initially resisted inclusion of a bill of rights in our Constitution.  He knew that the Constitution existed as an island, a tool of compulsion that was legitimate only to the extent it preserved the integrity of the sea’s uncircumscribed expanses.  He was afraid that, eventually, people would come to believe that the island was the source of liberty instead of merely its protector.

He was prescient.  Today, liberals and conservatives alike try to squeeze every claimed exercise of liberty into some nook or cranny in the Constitution’s text.  Or a penumbra of the text.  Or an intent of this or that Framer.  While the sides will take turns criticizing each other over how they pin the claimed liberty to the Constitution, most agree there is no liberty unless the island provides it.  And so it is that we transform the island into a sea of authority with isolated, and finite, promontories of adjectival freedom.

Because law follows culture, we can’t expect the State to resume its proper place until we, the people, demand that it does.  That won’t happen until we start asking the right questions.  So, for example, the correct question is not whether it is important to grant Christians an exemption from having to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.  In terms of how we live together in society, you will always come out on the losing side of that inquiry.

The correct question is to ask where the State obtains the authority to tell the baker to bake a cake for anyone.  If someone wishes to engage the compulsive levers of the State, the burden is on that person to explain the source of its authority to act.  The burden is not on the rest of us to construct, maintain, and justify an island of adjectival liberty.

How about we take a cue from our English friends (both Hannan and Harrington) and have at that conversation?

Don’t Expect Torch-and-Pitchfork Crowds to Behave Consistently

It’s a long way to Tipperary, and it’s a long way from here to charitable, hospitable Toleration.

Here’s your reference frame:

Last month, as Indiana’s rather tame religious-freedom legislation was being torched by the mob, America’s more devout dissenters were informed that the price of participation in the marketplace was the subjugation of one’s conscience to one’s Caesar. “You can’t opt out of the law,” the agitators explained. “This isn’t the Jim Crow South!” Their core message? That if we all keep quiet about our views — and if we treat commercial transactions as commercial transactions — nobody will end up getting hurt. Or, put another way: “Cater my wedding, you bigot.”

(source: The Tolerant Jeweler Who Harbored an Impure Opinion of Same-Sex Marriage)

So at the time, the range of responses that didn’t require an immediate change of laws (which I think is strongly warranted) and didn’t insist that only bigots could oppose gay marriage described an arc from “go along to get along” to “deal with the problem when it comes to you” to “do business with absolutely anyone, but do it in a noisily Christian way.”  

(Actual bigots just don’t get a voice in this conversation, as far as I’m concerned.  But people who treat others according to their real human dignity and yet decline to participate in their delusions and promote their self-destruction need a sensible, lawful, just way to do what’s right.)

All three of the above strategies were recommended by those (including me) who thought that pre-emptively declaring “won’t serve pizza at gay weddings” was unwise.  My favorite is the last, actually.

This case suggests the limitations of such strategies, and what you must anticipate if you adopt it:

a Canadian Christian jeweler custom-made a pair of engagement rings for a lesbian couple, Nicole White and Pam Renouf, at their request. Later, when they found out that the jeweler personally opposes same-sex marriage, they went to pieces and demanded their money back.

Let’s understand what happened here. This Christian jeweler agreed to custom-make engagement rings for a lesbian couple, knowing that they were a couple, and treated them politely. But when they found out what he really believed about same-sex marriage, even though the man gave them polite service, and agreed to sell them what they asked for, the lesbian couple balked, and demanded their money back — and the mob threatened the business if they didn’t yield. Which, of course, he did.

(source: Heads LGBTs Win, Tails Christians Lose) Continue reading

Provoke Not Your Children to Wrath (or Despair)

I think this is a good example of the kind of sober reflection on current events that we need to be doing–for our sake, and especially for the sake of those who must learn to live in the world we’ve made:

Listening to these voices made me think again of David Brooks’s astute comment that there are the Résumé Virtues and the Eulogy Virtues. The résumé virtues are what create success in status competitions. The eulogy virtues are what gives meaning to life in the face of the inevitability of that ultimate failure, death.

The problem is not that these teens are pushed to succeed at school; it is that when confronted by their own fear that they may fail to do so, at least at the same level as their peers or their parents, they have not been given a powerful vision of how and why their life would nonetheless be worth living.

(source: Why Are Palo Alto Kids Killing Themselves?)

“bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”

How To Do This?

I would change “the” to “a” in the first sentence, but I emphatically agree that some sort of modus vivendi would be an acceptable alternative to the sort of charitable and hospitable Toleration that I would prefer, and that it is up to Christians to take the initiative to seek this and find it.

I suspect the main danger to our freedom to practice our faith publicly comes precisely from this culture-war mentality in which Christians always approach their neighbors solely in a mode of hostility, thus legitimizing and reinforcing ther hostility to us. Our only hope is to defuse the culture war, and that will only happen if Christians approach their neighbors (they will not go first, we have to) and say, “we don’t want to be locked in this struggle with you. We can share this country.”

(source: Notable Points of Agreement | Hang Together)

However, I have to say that from a Catholic perspective, it simply doesn’t look like this.  Our leaders have, if anything, spent too much time trying to do exactly this:  you have no idea how much surprise and betrayal there was when, after advocating for something like Obamacare for decades, the bishops discovered that the administration was planning to target their institutions!  To me, this was a profoundly encouraging moment:  the Church was suddenly startled awake, and began to re-articulate its basic principles in ways that reminded the faithful that these were consequential.  We need more like this, not less.

American Catholics are not immigration hawks, on average, now or historically; we are the ones who most often speak up for “the stranger in your midst.”  We are staunch pro-lifers, but our methods here are not Operation Rescue.  Our work begins with serving everyone–until someone decides that serving in a Catholic way is not acceptable, and finds a rule to exclude us.  (Mentioning only briefly the matter of the WASP habit of automatically excluding Catholics.)

And, in daily life and work, “sharing” time and place is what I do.   Continue reading

C.S. Lewis, new Avenger?

OK, that title was a ridiculous pander.  

Just a quick note of another column in concurrence with the broad line of discussion that Greg has been tracing:

In writing to Don Giovanni–a Catholic priest, Lewis commented on the matter and  observed that  modern man was in such a lamentable state that perhaps it was necessary “first to make people good pagans, and after that to make them Christians”.

(source: Pagans or Puritans…You Choose)

(shameless plug:  some of my poems recently published)