Liberty restrained

Freedom in general may be defined as the absence of obstacles to the realization of desires. — Bertrand Russell

puppetsLast month’s election results were a shot in the arm for religious Democrats, who long have been hoping to take back values politics from the right. Since Kerry’s defeat in 2004, god-talk has grown steadily louder on the left — some of it is even sincere.

In the months leading up to the election, I spent a lot of time reading the spanking-new Faithful Democrats website, a place designed to help religious Democrats make themselves heard. The rhetoric has a fire and brimstone quality about it at times, but it’s a beginning. American politics will be much improved if faithful men and women on both the left and right can have a frank discussion about the essentials of a biblical political philosophy.

Because, though values conservatives get a lot of things right, their marriage to Republican politics has created some glaring blind spots. Christian Democrats like Jim Wallis — author of a best-seller with the decade’s most pretentious title (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It) — charge that the political right has cherry-picked Jesus’ words, glossing over his concern for the poor and powerless while ignoring his warnings about the corrosive effects of wealth and power.

True enough, but not very original.

Abortion. Poverty. Marriage and family. Health care. As important as these are, not one of them is foundational. What are the first principles on which a biblical political philosophy ought to be built?

And a more important question is this: What are the first principles, the legal foundation stones, that inform our American, secular political society today?

In the December, 2006 issue of First Things, Mary Ann Glendon, Professor of Law at Harvard University argues that American political theory and law today rest on a peculiarly modern view of man, one that exalts the individual and makes the right to personal autonomy the greatest of all goods.

It was the Enlightenment’s faith in mankind’s ability to be its own best moral light that gave rise to some of America’s most inspiring ideals. This was at a time in our history, Glendon points out, when Americans were steeped in the restraining influences of religious conviction and lived with each other in communities whose vitality depended on a generous ethic of cooperation and civil unity. Americans have always been known as rugged individualists, but in truth we only thrived in those early days because we organized ourselves and cooperated extensively, to our mutual benefit.

In the post-WWII years, as America became more affluent and less religious, that historical interdependence lost its importance. It even became a hindrance — wealth enabled us to achieve our dreams with nobody’s help but our own.

By rebuilding American law and political theory around a civil religion that worships “hyper-libertarian, ultra-individualistic” first principles, Glendon worries that we may have created a society that is no longer capable of acting as a true community.

American judges and lawyers frequently quote former justice Louis Brandeis’ dictum that the “most comprehensive of rights and the most valued by civilized men” is “the right to be let alone.” … Ruling on the constitutionality of a state abortion law in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the justices shifted the ground for abortion from privacy to liberty. To require a married woman to notify her husband of her intent to have an abortion, they held, would violate a woman’s liberty. In so holding, they announced a theory that endows human personhood with the freedom “to define one’s own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” … By embracing the notion of individual autonomy as fully as it has, and by ignoring or downgrading healthy forms of interdependence, the U.S. legal system may have rendered our society less hospitable to the weak, the vulnerable, and the dependent… —Looking for “Persons” in the Law, First Things, December 2006, (emphasis mine)

Strongly-held beliefs about liberty and personal rights are at the heart of our endless debates over abortion rights, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, gay rights, no-fault divorce, drug legalization, and embryonic stem-cell research. US law has been steadily liberalized in favor of greater personal autonomy in all areas, resulting in the lifting of legal restrictions that impinge on individual freedom. Democrats, unfortunately, have been at the forefront of these changes, but Libertarians and Conservatives have crowded in right behind them, drawn by the irresistible temptation to “define one’s own concept of existence.”

Legal theories have consequences. If I am free to determine “the meaning of the universe, and the mystery of human life,” I am also free to conclude with Cain that I am not my brother’s keeper. Hyper-individualism is the legal and moral antithesis of community, duty and social responsibility.

In their quest for a society built on personal freedom, liberals have legislated themselves into a corner.

On the one hand, they rightly see a need to create a just and compassionate society in which we all come to the aid of the poor, the sick, and the aged. We talk about community obligations like Social Security, affordable health insurance, living wages and basic housing. Each of these social duties require us to look beyond ourselves to the needs of society at large. They also require us to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of the “less fortunate.”

On the other hand, the same liberals who would create this social Utopia have relentlessly pushed an agenda of radical individualism and personal autonomy, insisting that the desires of each and every individual must always trump the moral preferences of society.

An individualistic, libertarian society is inevitably a dog-eat-dog society. Professor Glendon points to one illustration of the stark difference between the US and Europe in this regard. In France and Germany, where the law makes the concept of universal human dignity a greater social good than individual autonomy, a legal obligation exists for a citizen to come to the aid of someone in peril, even at some risk to his own health and well-being. In the US, however, the courts have ruled that even where such aid might reasonably be given with no risk to the rescuer, there is no legal duty to assist someone in need. Liberty simply cannot co-exist with obligation.

A political system that wants to call itself “Christian” must be built on a foundation of self-denial, not self-aggrandizement. At the same time, it must hold that every human being has an essential dignity and intrinsic worth as a son or daughter of God. In denying ourselves, we don’t degrade our humanity — rather, we discover what it means to be truly human, in community.

Biblical freedom was never meant to be self-serving.

For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” — Galatians 5:13,14, NLT

A Christian political philosophy will not grow from seeds of hyper-individualism. It can only be called “Christian” if it calls us to emulate the self-emptying Son of God, who gave up every right and privilege to join himself to us in community.

So far, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have proposed anything quite so revolutionary as that. But if we’re serious about building a society that cares for the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the unborn, we’re going to have to draw our inspiration from the King who was born in a stable.

Photo credit: University of Waikato

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. “In denying ourselves, we don’t degrade our humanity — rather, we discover what it means to be truly human, in community.”

    I am persuaded that what you say here describes the Kingdom of God as referenced throughout the Scriptures and most particularly in Jesus’ teaching. It is the “great dance” that C.S. Lewis talks about. It isn’t my dance plus your dance plus his dance and hers. This dance is all of us together in our one dance.

    And our joy can’t be complete apart from the participation of all of the others (1 John 1:4), each one preferring the others in honor above himself, considering them greater than himself, the greatest being the servant of all of the rest.

    We evangelicals have bought fully into the individualism that you describe, pretty much relegating the Kingdom of God to the class of curiosities that need to be looked up in our Bible dictionaries in order to be understood at all. I’m afraid that it shows. Thanks for a really insightful essay.

  2. Abortion. Poverty. Marriage and family. Health care.

    Ok quick quiz for you Charlie, Poverty goes first.

    Which US senator has tried time and time again to raise minimum wage to a “living wage” but has gotten shot down every year and will finally get his chance now during the first 100 days of the Democratically controlled congress?

    (a) Orrin ‘I don’t want fags to marry but polygamy, incest, statutory rape, and forced underage marriage in my own state are fine’ Hatch

    (b) Rick ‘family values, unless you’re poor’ Santorum

    (c) Ted ‘just a drunkard, as far as Charlie is concerned’ (drunkard and killer, Cap’n — or was Mary Jo a Karl Rove invention?) Kennedy

    (d) Bill ‘that don’t look like permanent vegetative state to me’ Frist

  3. Question 2: Marriage and family

    Which state has the lowest divorce rate?

    (a) Texas, ‘home’ of the God-chosen president

    (b) Utah, land of polygamy and incest (and some national parks)

    (c) Massachusetts, home of Ted ‘drunken killah’ Kennedy

    (d) gotta be one of them Bible belt states, I just know it