Religious Freedom … or, as I Like To Call It, Freedom

“A winning argument for religious freedom cannot be based on anti-Christian premises” – James Kalb

The above quote is the subtitle from a recent article by James Kalb titled “Tyranny, Religion, and the Fight for Freedom.” With a title like that, you knew I was going to take a look. We’ll talk about the article and my thoughts in a second, but first I wanted to offer a reversal (in the form of a quip) of the lead quote. Perhaps a winning argument for religious freedom cannot be based on anti-Christian premises (and I stress perhaps), but I would argue that a winning argument for freedom (not just religious freedom) can be based on Christian premises.

I have no real problems with the article. Kalb’s premise is slightly off from where I would start and his argumentation delves a bit further into a blurring of terms and semantics. For example, what do we mean by “liberal” – is it the current form of liberalism or Hayek’s “classical liberalism” which would mean freedom? It is clear that Kalb begins with the modern view (i.e. progressivism) but slides quickly into equating that with Hayek’s view of maximum freedom – but the two are not the same. They are in fact at odds with one another, as Elie Halevy would note: “the socialists believe in two things which are absolutely different and perhaps contradictory: freedom and organization.”

Kalb hits the nail on the head by noting early on that progressivism, or liberalism as he is using it, leads directly away from freedom in its attempt to provide freedom. That is, in organizing and collectivizing the free people for the benefit of the “whole,” it finds that it must destroy freedom and enforce conformity in order to get anywhere. This runs aground rather quickly (as one would count social movements – on the order of decades) in that it first attempts to subjugate the very nature of man, who chooses to freely exercise his own life and his own will, and then proves utterly inept and achieving any of the other stated goals along the way. Not only to the participants (victims?) in fascist, socialist, communist states find themselves less free and therefore less happy and fulfilled – but they also find themselves less productive and less creative in the process. We don’t at allneed the second outcome to argue against fascism, but it sure does come in handy at beating back those utilitarian arguments that are oh-so popular amongst the progressive types.

Where Kalb steps out of bounds, to my mind, is when he draws a connection between individualism and fascism. He holds (and I’m paraphrasing badly here) that the “liberal” ascent to neutrality of individual choice (you make your own decisions – because you are free) leads to a putting down of religious moralization and ultimately leads to a promulgating of “preferred choices” on the part of the liberal aristocracy. That is, by attempting to drive out the concept of moral absolutes (which some hold is necessary to have freedom, though I disagree) liberals find that they must put down religion and elevate anti-religion. For cases-in-point Kalb notes the recent DHHS mandate on abortifacient drugs, or prohibition of “discrimination” on religous grounds.

I agree with Kalb’s ultimate end here – that attempting to mold decisions and outcomes leads away from freedom and demands that free people violate their consciences. Where we disagree is that this is at all an outcome of a desire for freedom. No doubt there have been some, even many, who believed that if we just set all the people free, truly free to live their lives as they please (though, without violating the rights of others), that they would choose a different state of being – and one that fit into our individual little minds as being better, or more highly evolved. Perhaps those free people would choose to not discriminate, or choose to be tolerant, or choose to hold a more “enlightened” view of marriage, or sexuality, or drug use, or who-knows-what-else. But what if they don’t? What if free people choose to live a life that is different that what you thought the natural state of man would be if he were only unencumbered by traditions and hierarchy?

At this point one is left with a difficult, painful, self-effacing choice: either we give them a “nudge” in the right direction (and take away a bit of freedom in the process), or we value freedom and respect their right to manage their gift of life in whatever way they deem best. It is a choice that all-to-often follows the first path. These silly free people chose wrong, so we have to nudge them back in the right direction. What a sad state of affairs – “the old hierarchy and tradition failed, but if we could just provide freedom the people would choose the right … and if they don’t we’ll have to institute a new hierarchy and tradition to help them.”

Where Mr. Kalb and I part ways is in the step between freedom and tyranny. We who love freedom have no need that people choose what is right, only that they be allowed to choose. The problem isn’t that free people made bad choices – that will always be – the problem is that the wise among us (and there are many) feel that the goodness of choice, even if it is no longer a free choice, is more important than the gift of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness; gifts from the Creator Himself.

I say that we can argue for this freedom from Christian premises, and so we will. First, we note, as we always do, that the Golden Rule implies freedom of individual choice for others if one at all desires such freedom for himself. Freedom of individual choice does not override defense of human rights (I will not stand by and allow you to “choose” to murder your neighbor … he gets a choice too). But when the matter is not one of violation of rights, then there is no other choice or impact to be measured that outweighs the individual’s freedom.

Next we note the traditional view that God gives us free will because He wants us to choose relationship with Him. (I offer apologies to the Calvinists reading here … but I am not a Calvinist and have no problem expressing a belief in free will.) God wishes for us to choose Him, and to choose the good as we walk through this life. When the force of governance impinges this free choice then it is no longer “good” that one is choosing, but merely calculated adherence to a set of regulations carrying various threats of punishment.

Whether through the Golden Rule, or the notion of free will, one quickly comes to the conclusion that democratic (i.e., majority-rule) restrictions on freedom for the sake of “good outcomes” amount to theocracy. If we wish for good outcomes on utilitarian grounds, then we must allow for pragmatism and experimentation – which is itself a measure of freedom. If we wish for good outcomes on moral grounds, and will inhibit freedom to have them, then we are theocrats and find that we place ourselves a little closer to God than our fellow men.

We choose freedom not because it is of the best utility – though I certainly believe that it is, and that history proves this – but instead because our choices of love, and sacrifice, and faith, and relationship with Christ are diminished, and diminished greatly, if they do not emanate from freedom. We will gladly tolerate that others will make bad choices in the land of freedom, though we try stridently to convince them otherwise. We did not come to make them good – only the Potter can mold the clay – the best we can do is make them free, and live out an example of freely-chosen relationship with Him that is undeniable in its value, peace, beauty, joy, and even utility.

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2 Responses to Religious Freedom … or, as I Like To Call It, Freedom

  1. James Kalb says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    I agree that classical and present-day liberalism are different, but view them as different stages of development of the principle that individual freedom is the ultimate standard.

    The issue comes out in your “we who love freedom have no need that people choose what is right, only that they be allowed to choose.” The problem is that liberalism can’t let people choose to infringe on the freedom of others. As time goes by and the implications of putting individual freedom first become clearer, more and things are thought to infringe on individual freedom. That means that more and more controls are needed to keep people from making oppressive choices. So today if a Catholic organization at Vanderbilt U doesn’t allow non-Catholics to become leaders that’s oppressive and it can’t be allowed.

    I should mention that the title and subtitle were supplied by CWR and not tightly integrated with the argument.

    • nomasir says:

      It is rare, but does happen from time to time that we get feedback from the original authors that we reference – and we are quite grateful.

      I would simply like to note that Mr. Kalb and I are, in my estimation, in essential agreement on the major point. The progression of freedom has been one in which the term itself has morphed and changed, to where freedom comes to mean anything but. (Hayek himself noted that the socialists, fascists, and classic liberals all used the same word – but used it with quite different meanings. Honestly, it reminds me a bit of the Federal Reserve’s stand on “free markets.” I would see “free markets” as unencumbered markets … Ben Bernanke see’s free markets as markets that are “free to go up” but if they dare go down the Fed will intervene forcefully.)

      The progressives of long ago stretched the term “freedom” to include “stuff” – that is, you’re only free if you have the stuff, the material wealth, necessary to “enjoy” and “exercise” your freedom. This is absurd to the rational man, but it gains quite a bit of traction with the envy-driven mob. That somehow I am not “free” if I am not able to make every choice available to wealthy men. They use such logic to drive away freedom and morph the populace, the society, into a mold of their dreams – thus the Fabian Socialist motto of “mold it nearer the heart’s desire.”

      Thanks for the comment Mr. Kalb.

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