Tyranny, Religion, and the Fight for Freedom


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ABSTRACT Tyranny, Religion, and the Fight for Freedom: Catholic World Report HOME ARCHIVED ARTICLES EDITORIAL CWR BLOG VIDEO ABOUT US NEWS BRIEFS / RSS FREE eNEWSLETTER DONATE ADVERTISE Current Issue:   Ecclesia et Civitas Ecclesia et Civitas Print   /   Share   /   Send Tyranny, Religion, and the Fight for Freedom April 12, 2012 A winning argument for religious freedom cannot be based on anti-Christian premises. James Kalb Last month I suggested that if society rejects transcendent standards and natural law, then political and moral order become what those in power make of them. Fascism and communism show one way that can work out: the will of the charismatic and powerful becomes the highest law. That view of political life is exciting and dramatic, so it sometimes gets traction, but it soon runs into problems. Photos of Europe in 1945 show how big those problems can be. Liberalism—the outlook on public life now dominant in the West—is much more sober. It appeals to utility rather than charisma, and prefers the rationality of a system to the excitement of battle. For the liberal, getting rid of transcendent standards means deciding questions based on this-worldly practicalities, and rejecting the idea of a natural moral order means affirming our ability to define for ourselves what things are and what they mean to us. Such views are thought to provide a safe, tolerant, and commonsensical solution to the dangers posed by modern skepticism: not the fascist Triumph of the Will, but the liberal Triumph of Choice. The devil, though, is in the details. Choices conflict, so the Triumph of Choice means nothing unless we know which choices triumph. Liberalism tries to be principled, and its moral skepticism means it can’t give the nod to the choices that are simply better. It wants a neutral solution, so it ends up appealing to technical effectiveness and the “do your own thing” attitude implicit in the triumph of individual choice over collective will. What it tries to do, then, is set up a system in which individuals get as much as possible of whatever they want within the limits imposed by the coherence and effective functioning of the system itself. The nature and needs of the system then provide a standard for deciding conflicts. Those needs put a premium on goals, like a career, that support the functioning of the system; on pursuits, like consumption choices and private indulgences, that are easily managed because they don’t much affect other people; and on acceptance of the choices of others. So when there are conflicts, it’s the self-regarding, efficiency-promoting, and tolerant goals that get the nod. In a complex and dynamic society, goals constantly conflict with each other in all sorts of ways, and liberalism provides a clear principle for resolving the conflicts. In addition, it’s progressive, which means that as time goes by it perfects its system. So as liberalism develops, it subordinates disfavored to favored goals ever more comprehensively. The result is that it eventually becomes tyrannical and therefore self-refuting. Religious freedom provides an example. The liberal principle of neutral individual freedom has no special concern for religion as such, but views it as one pursuit among many. For that reason liberalism favors freedom of worship as a private activity much more than freedom for religion to play a public role. So it seems to set religion free, because it wants to set all activities free, but ends up suppressing it, because religious concerns are too comprehensive and go too deep to fit smoothly into a system of efficiently satisfied individual preferences. So liberalism starts by rejecting government recognition of religious authority and insisting on free choice and expression in religious matters. The First Amendment represents that classical stage of development: the law can no longer support any particular religious view, but it is still friendly to religious activities and to the self-government and public influence of religious communities. The development does not stop there. Eventually liberals get concerned about features of private life that they see as oppressive. They abandon their classical “limited government” approach, and start to insist on subordinating recognition of religious authority by private institutions to the purposes of the individuals who rely on the institutions. One result is that the government comes to forbid private discrimination on grounds related to religion. An employer who wants to promote a Christian ethos in the workplace can’t preferentially hire Christians, and a Catholic printer is not allowed to refuse to print programs for a “gay wedding.” Most recently the demand that institutional expressions of religion give way to individual choice has been extended to insistence that Catholic schools and hospitals provide produc.......