Acton Institute Powerblog

Liberty and License

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Max Blumenthal over at Arianna Huffington’s overhyped new blog, “The Huffington Post,” concludes that “the struggle for America’s future is not a conflict between political parties, but between two ideologies. One values individual freedom, the other, clerical authoritarianism. True conservatives should choose sides more carefully.”

Blumenthal misunderstands the true nature of freedom, ignoring the moral foundation of freedom and lumping it in with “clerical authoritarianism.”

As Lord Acton says, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

Or, in the words of John Milton, “None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license.”

Blumenthal’s theological relatives would be something like the antinomians who misconstrued Christian freedom in Christ, and against whom the apostle Paul wrote, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:13-15 NIV).

See also Romans 6:18, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Vache Folle

    The dichotomy between clerical authoritarianism and individual freedom, or, if one prefers, liberty amd license, perhaps ought to be discussed on two levels. One may regard a behavior as licentious and yet choose not to establish a coercive mechanism to prevent or punish it.

  • Mathew Flannery

    Max Blumenthal once again erects the Religious Right theocracy straw man argument which Jordan Ballor fails to recognize. The Left’s favorite rhetorical device is to accuse their enemy of the very thing they are already doing. The Left hardly stands for freedom but rather their own version of paternalistic authoritarianism.

    They cannot admit to it or explpain it away but they go on the offensive slandering the other side for the very thing they are doing. This forces the Religious Right to defend against the bogus theocracy charge instead of highlighting the Left’s desire to control peoples lives through greater government.

    Blumenthal does not misunderstand it; on the contrary, he is purposely misrepresenting and misleading his readers. Ballor should know this.

  • I’m well aware of the hypocritical attack on conservative Christians as “theocrats,” and I do recognize the “straw man” constructed by Blumenthal. Although statements by certain religious figures perhaps are not so impervious to a charge of theocracy.

    In this instance, however, I preferred not to presume Mr. Blumenthal’s motivation and constructively respond with examples of a true represntation of “freedom,” destroying the false dichotomy of “individual freedom” and “clerical authoritarianism.”

    Would you contend that there are no elements of the “Religious Right” to which a charge of theocracy would be at all applicable? Is the charge completely without merit?

    Or is the problem the assertion that a small faction of the “Religious Right” represents the whole?

  • Mathew Flannery

    I would contend as Ann Coulter does in her book Slander that the term “Religious Right” has become a meaningless epitaph. Blumenthal uses it in much the same way calls GWB a Nazi. It is a rhetorical device that gets its mileage out of the emotional response it generates. There is no reasoned argument behind it.

    To constructively respond regarding the merits of individual freedom versus clerical authoritarianism concedes to Blumenthal that he actually made a reasoned argument. He did not, so you find yourself on the defense.

    His choice of the two terms are purely rhetorical as well. Of course, you would pick individual freedom, but would you agree with his definition? I do not know since he never defines it, but I can guarentee it is not the same as the Founding Fathers definition regardless of what Al Gore says.

  • Simply because Blumenthal may not make a reasoned argument is no excuse for a response not being well-reasoned.

    Of course I don’t agree with his definition of “individual freedom,” which is the point of my post. I am glad to see that you reference Ann Coulter, who is quite the authority on “purely rhetorical” devices.

    I’m not overly concerned with finding myself “on the defense,” since Blumenthal’s post is obviously an “attack.” If the defense is well-articulated and reasoned, it will ultimately be effective, and the attack will be shown to have been malformed, baseless, et al.

    Your deflections of Blumenthal’s “bogus theocracy charge” are a mix of the genetic fallacies and ad hominem attacks.

    How’s this for a straw man?

    I’m not interested in pretending that there aren’t theocratizing tendencies among some Christians (on both the political left and political right).

    What I am interested in doing, in this case at least, is showing that freedom and morality are not contradictory, as Blumenthal assumes, but rather complementary. And that, contrary to Blumenthal, any explicit attempt to bring “God,” “religion,” or “morality,” explicitly into political discourse is not coidentical with “clerical authoritarianism” or “theocratizing.”

  • Mathew Flannery

    I think the one fallacy you missed was of the False Dilemma. How about the No True Scotsman fallacy or in Blumenthal’s case No True Conservative? Is it ad hominem to call a spade a spade and feel that there is no need to defend against arguments build on sand? Would it not be fallacious to merely quote from Authority?

    Since you agree that Blumenthal lacks an argument to support the dilemma he posits to “true conservatives” would it not be better to fight the argument on his turf. You do not agree with his conception of individual freedom nor would you agree with his characterization people of faith.

    Would it not be nice to see Blumenthal regale us with the benefits of interpreting the Constitution as a living document, judicial activism, or the wall of separation found in the first amendment. Maybe he could expound upon how the last seventy years of progressive politics has drastically improved individual freedom. No, instead I hear a boy crying wolf.

    What is up with the allusion to bushfish?

  • The bushfish allusion is simply a reference that there may in fact exist those who improperly mix Christianity and politics. I don’t necessarily disagree with the opposition of individual freedom to clerical authoritarianism, if the two concepts are properly defined or understood.

    My first reaction to Blumenthal’s piece was to respond by means of calling his conclusion a “false dilemma,” but I chose rather to point to valid definitions of his terms.

    I think we essentially agree on the inadequacy and error of Blumenthal’s post. We seem to disagree on the proper response(s). I’m of the opinion that there is more than one way to respond to such things, and that each response need not manifest all the possible ways of addressing error.

    If you are intent on rebuking me for not responding in all the ways I possibly could respond, I must admit that you are right. You, of course, are free to respond to Blumenthal as you wish, and I’m happy that these comments could act as a forum for your expression.

  • Mathew Flannery

    I appreciate the opportunity you have provided me to express my thoughts. I do not think a rebuke is necessary. I thought that responding to a faulty conclusion was giving too much credence to the argument especially given the equivocations involved.
    IMHO stating that fact explicitly would have eliminated that ambiguity and strengthen your point that individual freedom is based on morality. A point greatly misunderstood in today’s world.

  • A while back I wrote that “the struggle for America’s future is not a conflict between political parties, but between two ideologies. One values individual freedom, the other, clerical authoritarianism. True conservatives should choose sides more carefully.” The Acton Institute, a right-wing Catholic “libertarian” think tank whose president, Robert Sirico, is an informal advisor to Bush on Catholic issues, basically proves my point…

  • Max Blumenthal has responded to an earlier post of mine, which criticized him for a misunderstanding of the nature of freedom.

    He states that my response “basically proves” his point re: clerical authoritarianism. He then goes on to ask wha