“Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” – C. S. Lewis
Before American entry into WWII, we had a pretty strong isolationist streak. In hindsight, isolationism was foolish (though I love it in theory). Had we successfully stayed out of the conflict and Germany had bested the UK, we would not have been far behind. There is a very real, rational argument to be made for heading off a gathering storm before it makes landfall. Losing the war makes your values of individual liberty and disentanglement from foreign conflicts of very little value.
Obviously this is a matter of scales. If you stand across the room from me and say you would kill me if you could, I can easily walk away. If you say the same thing while loading a gun I may have to explore other options – including taking the fight to you if I can get there fast enough. The same holds for preemptive war. If a country is lining up tanks on the boarder, we don’t have to wait for them to fire a shot before we take action. But, if they’re merely spouting rhetoric we may have other diplomatic tools available short of action.
I’d like to pull the thread on this line of reasoning with regards to actions of the state in regards to defending individual liberties and human rights. The impetus for this was a recent speech by Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, who went on a nice little rant about the dangers and failures of multiculturalism as a state policy (story here). I’ll stay away from endorsing or opposing his positions. What interested me about the speech is how it speaks to some fairly fundamental points about the nature of democracy and individual rights.
In the speech, Cameron gives the following commentary on engagement with certain religious organizations. (He’s speaking primarily of Islamic fundamentalists, but we need not restrict the discussion to those groups.) “Let’s properly judge these organisations: Do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separatism?”
Cameron appears to be hinting at a similar theme, but in regards to civil liberties. He appears to contend that organizations committed to theocracy can be reasonably opposed at the state level, in defense of civil liberties. Again, it’s not my intent to endorse these views, merely to sound out the implications.
In America we tend to view the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as sacred documents. We have somehow come to the conclusion that “we hold these truths to be self-evident” is some sort of universal immutable constant, like gravity. The fact that our founding documents claim unalienable rights for the citizens; life, liberty, pursuit of happiness; in no way guarantees that they cannot be revoked or denied. The fact that the Constitution ensures freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association in no way guarantees that those rights will always be available. Surely history has taught us that much.
We’ve noted before that the majority is more than ready to upend the rights of the individual. If enough people vote for policies clearly outside the bounds of the constitution, you can bet those policies will find their way into practice. That said, we need not stop at the tyranny of the majority. Dictators and warlords alike have ruled with much less than a majority backing. Tyranny never sleeps.
We live in a fallen and broken world. The individual rights and liberties that we hold dear had better rest on more than a piece of paper. They had better rest on deeply held beliefs in human equality before God; in the truly unalienable nature of the gifts He has given us.
Having said that, how do we respond to the clear battle lines drawn up by those who oppose freedom, who oppose individual rights, who promote theocracy? To this I offer several thoughts.
First, we fight in the hearts and minds. Before actual conflict ever erupts, the war of ideas is held. If the belief in human freedom, human equality, human rights is spread throughout the masses, then those who would raise a theocracy over us stand little chance.
Next, we should not shy away from pointing out radical thought. When parties or individuals support ideals that run counter to freedom, we should be vocal in exposing them. Whether islamo-fascists or socialist-progressives, we should not cower from speaking out against tyranny – even if it is promoted “for the good” of the whole. This, I think, is what Cameron was hitting at. It is foolish to blindly hold to “multi-culturalism” or “pluralism” or any other “don’t make any judgments about other ideologies” philosophy. It’s OK to disagree with one another. We should not shy away from frank discourse.
Finally, I will note that for Christians, establishing a freedom-loving society where individual rights are held firm is not the ultimate goal. We recognize the blessings of liberty. We recognize the Biblical foundations of human equality. And yet we do not hold that the Kingdom of God consists of elections, and policies, and human institutions.
If the masses turn from God, if the masses turn toward oppression, if the masses turn from a good path; we are still to be salt and light in the world.
As a parting shot, we should also note that the line of reasoning employed above with regards to WWII and engaging a threat before it gathers strength can be quite dangerous in the political spectrum. Suppose for a moment that a movement breaks out in the UK to oppose the practice of Islam as “threatening to freedom”. (This is absolutely NOT what Cameron was discussing, by the way.) How long will it be before the benevolent powers of the freedom-defending government are turned on any organization that opposes a government policy. “Opposition” could well be viewed as “intent to overthrow” – and this too is the way of tyrants.
It’s quite a pickle. Better win the fight in the hearts and minds before it ever comes to anything worse.