George Whitefield, San Francisco, and Just How Free You Think You Are

“O poor New England! There is a deep laid plot against your civil and religious liberties, and they will be lost. Your golden days are at an end. You have nothing but trouble before you. . . . Your liberties will be lost.” – George Whitefield

My sources indicate the above quote was from 2 April 1764. Whitefield was indicating to a group of ministers, long before the American Revolution, that there was a plot to end religious liberties in America. It seems that the Anglican church, wanted to exert its control over the religious affairs of the American colonies, which ran counter to the prevailing theme of religious liberty.

Who knows if Whitefield knew that the whole mess would end in revolution (that America would actually win!)? What is fairly clear, in fact obvious in hindsight, is that the potential threat to religious freedom was quite troubling to the colonials. So much so that  in 1791 freedom of religion was ratified into the U.S. Constitution as part of the first amendment.

Fast-forward to several hundred years. There is a move afoot in San Francisco for a ballot initiative to outlaw the practice of circumcision; or, the practice of circumcision on non-adults (one of many stories is here). Proponents of the ban will say that circumcision is mutilation, and that it should not happen outside of consent of the offended party. Opponents will note that this is a religious rite, defended under the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

I clearly agree with opponents of the ban – this is a religious issue for Jews. But, to be fair, I should note that I am not at all in favor of female circumcision, a form of genital mutilation practiced by certain adherents of Islam. For that matter, we could construct any number of hypothetical scenarios in which a parent makes a decision they fundamentally believe to be in the best interest of the child, but which causes the child future (or present) harm. These are messy. At what point does the defense of life and liberty intervene?

(Now, having said that, the opponents of circumcision seem, to me, to be on a religious crusade; continually overstating the detriments.)

To this we’d like to make two simple points.

The first is a simple jab at the subtle presumption of “default” status by progressives. “You are free to practice your religion, but your children are to be unaffected by it (since it’s wrong) until they’re old enough to choose for themselves.” Sure, the ballot measure is only a small, small hint in that direction, but the premise comes up in other places as well.

(One need look no further than the standard public school approach to social engineering, in which children are taught (on the public dime and with no countervailing viewpoints) a standard set of liberal-accepted social norms. But I digress.)

Second, and more interestingly, is that this is the plight of democracy versus republic. In a democracy, which is the form of government being utilized in San Francisco to push this measure, your rights are totally subject to the will of the majority. If the majority says that you must work 60 hour weeks to pay for their car detailing and personal chefs, then that’s just the way it is. If you want it to be otherwise, you either have to appeal to the masses and form your own majority, or have a system in which fundamental rights are protected (e.g., a republic). I know, that’s what we’re supposed to have in the United States … we’ll see how far this ballot measure goes.


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2 Responses to George Whitefield, San Francisco, and Just How Free You Think You Are

  1. “I clearly agree with opponents of the ban… but, to be fair, I should note that I am not at all in favor of female circumcision…”

    I do not understand this. You are ok with the former as a practice consistent with your own religious belief, but against the latter as a practice which happens to be inconsistent with your beliefs? Ok, I imagine the response might be that many of the female circumcision practices are so atrocious that they affect (i.e., eliminate) the girl’s ability to have children. But suppose, for crude example, that some wacky religion observes some “milder” form of female circumcision? I hope that you would find that acceptable. (I wouldn’t, I’m just trying to keep you honest. :))

    “… you either have to appeal to the masses and form your own majority, or have a system in which fundamental rights are protected (e.g., a republic).”

    This is the more interesting question that we have discussed before. How, exactly, would your republic work? That is, how, exactly, are those fundamental rights determined? Putting it still more precisely, who are what would be responsible for determining, on a case by case basis, whether a proposed law should be thrown out as interfering with anything other than our “fundamental” rights, or whether a particular action does or does not violate some such fundamental right?

    Hmmm… this sounds suspiciously like our current judicial branch of government. Ok, so perhaps the response is that we simply need to replace all of the judges. But is there really any expectation that fresh blood alone would magically eliminate all impositions on whatever these “fundamental” rights are?

    My point in this long-winded exercise is that, in practice, a republic is nothing more than a democracy with more inertia… because if it is anything more than that– such as a divinely-authorized immutable short list of rules that even a democratically-agreed-upon judge can’t change or overturn– then you have just excluded anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that divine authority from playing the game.

    Put another way, you’re right, this is not a democracy because we don’t have referenda for everything… but if you follow the chain of decision-making far enough, that chain does not eventually end with God handing down the final say. It ends with the democratic process of votes by individuals to change how the chain works.

    Perhaps there is a better system than the one that we currently have. Ours certainly does have its quirks. And trying to come up with something better is nothing new. Plato tried it, and the result was, in my opinion, an unworkable comedy of arbitrary detail.

    • nomasir says:

      Perhaps the bit of female circumcision was unclear – it was a tip-of-the-hat to your main point – the issue is “messy”. That is, I don’t (personally) approve of female circumcision, but find it to be a thin line between Jewish ritual male circumcision and female mutilation. I can point to major and severe religious differences, but these should matter little to the issue of public policy. It is an open question then – where does defense of life and liberty intervene on behalf of children whose parents are making a decision that is ultimately not in the best interest of the child (and who can make such a determination)? I tend to think that the FIRST place is with LIFE – and thus I’m pro-life. But, exactly where to draw the line on male/female circumcision is less obvious. Other than I will note that you will likely find very few adult males who say “I wish I weren’t circumcised” – but the same is possibly not true in the case of female circumcision (mutilation).

      Now, to the second point. I readily agree that a republic (even ours as it is supposed to operate in principle) is a democracy with inertia. Any rights you or I would dream to hold dear are immediately forfeited if 2/3 of congress and 3/4 of state legislatures so decide. But, those rights are at the very least “protected” – by said inertia. It is just more difficult to get a 2/3 or 3/4 majority to plunder such a small minority without the offense becoming dramatic in the face of a modestly compassionate citizenry.

      To that extent, I actually prefer democracy with inertia (preferably a lot of inertia, though that can obviously cause difficulties). My main thrust on issues of republic or the constitution tends to be: (i) what ought Christians support in terms of public policy (whether democracy or republic) in the face of such simple Biblical dictates as the Golden Rule (and others) – and (ii) if we truly have a “democracy with inertia” what does the current state of the laws indicate about the allowable range of public policy … and does our current governance reflect that? The current state of the law is given in the constitution with its amendments (which are not gospel – but are the law), and our current governmental form resembles nothing of the sort. That is, INERTIA should mean a higher barrier to entry for certain changes, but in practice it means a longer time to make changes by fiat – nibbling little-by-little based on what level of usurpation the public will tolerate at any given time.

      This latter point is a big one in our country, as the judicial branch to which you refer has made a consistent practice of completely disregarding clearly written law in pursuit of some greater “social justice” goals. Of course, this has nothing to do with the San Francisco issue, but it is quite prevalent.

      OK, enough rambling – need to write a post for 3 June … possibly government bailout of Chrysler and a sure sign that the stock market is headed down.

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