Category: Individual Liberty

Transparency International has released its 2013 findings regarding global corruption and bribery. The implications of corruption and bribery are manifold: they decrease confidence in governments, make it difficult for the poor and corruptiondisconnected to get out of poverty, and break down trust throughout society. In fact, Transparency International found that two institutions that should be the most trusted (police and the judiciary) are the ones most riddled with corruption, world-wide.

Here is one example:

Fifty-year old Carmela [name has been changed] was sleeping at home when she was woken by banging and shouting from the  apartment above, where her son lives. Rushing upstairs, she says she found the 27-year-old mechanic being beaten by police officers. Ignoring her cries, the officers dragged him from the apartment and took him to their local headquarters, where they demanded payment for his release. Carmela’s problem is not new in her community, a makeshift settlement where local people claim to suffer constant harassment from certain police officers who demand bribes in return for leaving them in peace. Fearing retaliation, people find a way to pay the officers, who reportedly ask for as much as several thousand US dollars. But for Carmela, a housekeeper with four children, one suffering from cancer, this was impossible. Acting on Carmela’s behalf, Transparency International Venezuela contacted senior government and police officials, calling on them to take action. As a result, when she went to the local police headquarters to pay the bribe, the state authorities were watching. As soon as the money changed hands, they moved in and arrested the officers involved. Her son was released without payment. The police officers were detained and now await trial, while a full investigation is underway.

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I’m catching up on reading after the holiday last week, and the July 4 edition of the Transom has some gems, including this bit from Alexis de Tocqueville on the mindset of tenants:

There are some nations in Europe whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. They suspect it; they have heard of the event by chance. More than that, they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.”

They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid. Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. They submit, it is true, to the whims of a clerk, but no sooner is force removed than they are glad to defy the law as a defeated enemy. Thus one finds them ever wavering between servitude and license.

This description of servile and licentious tenancy can be directly contrasted with a vision of responsible and faithful stewardship, in which the steward acts in the interests of his or her lord. As Paul writes, “it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2 ESV). On the Christian view, it is in our best interest to align our interests with God’s, submitting our stewardship to his will and his law.

One of the consistent themes in Christian social teaching is the recognition that this world has both material and spiritual realities. As such, it is not only important that we think about the moral, political, and economic structures that contribute to set the stage for human flourishing but that we also pray for those who are suffering that they would be free to live out their callings as human persons made in God’s image.

The Friday weekly intercessory prayer from the The Book of Common Prayer from the Church of Ireland directs our attention to these populations.

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spyingThe stunning news that the United States may be the most surveilled society in human history has opened a fierce debate on security, privacy, and accountability, says Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School. He says religious believers should be particularly concerned:

Persons of faith should be deeply concerned about the current surveillance flap not because privacy is an absolute end in itself but rather because it points to and safeguards something else even more basic and fundamental, namely, human dignity. According to Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, real dignity requires that human beings “should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by sense of duty.” Such responsible freedom is the basis for both the establishment of friendships and the maintenance of family life. Without the possibility of non-coercive self-disclosure, which is vitiated by unfettered intrusion, such relationships are fatuous.

In the same way, conscientious religious commitment also requires a personal fiducial response to the divine. Thus religious freedom presupposes the recognition of privacy as an expression of human dignity. By no means is this a strictly Catholic or even Christian issue. The Southern Baptist Convention was right to pass a resolution at its annual meeting in Houston this month defining religious liberty as “the freedom of the individual to live in accordance with his or her religiously informed values and beliefs,” and citing in support Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”

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Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
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Today at Ethika Politika, I offer an Independence Day reflection on the relation between political liberty, the associations of civil society, and the ascetic spirit necessary to maintain them:

Yet if these associations and their societal benefit are in decline, how can we prevent that “soft despotism” Tocqueville so vividly and presciently described? He writes,

I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

While Tocqueville goes on to describe the “immense and tutelary power [i.e. the state] that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate,” it is worth noting that the atomization of society he describes is firstly a deterioration of culture by a common passion for “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The society he imagines, though it may know nothing of extreme want, also knows nothing of fasting and, by consequence, of true freedom in the sense described by Acton. It reflects the heart of a people that actually wants a government to “remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living.” And as Burke has said, external restraints of the state must multiply when inner restraints of the soul diminish. To the extent that we are on our way to Tocqueville’s dystopian democracy and civil society in the United States is in decline … we can assume, at least, an accompanying decline in the way of life that values self-restraint and virtue over “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The basic conviction is one I have expressed here before. Asceticism, understood as the self-limitation of oneself for the sake of self-discipline and virtue, is essential to self-government and therefore to a free society. In this article in particular, however, I focus especially on the possibility of a link between ascetic living and the rich associational life that Alexis de Tocqueville noted was so important a check upon the power of the state and the passions of a democratic people.

Read the full article, “Self-Limitation, Liberty, and Civil Society,” here.

In an open letter to all Americans, religious leaders as varied as Catholic Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Susan Taylor, the National Public Affairs Director of the Church of Scientology, have responded to the Obama religious-freedomV2administration’s “final” ruling regarding the HHS mandate that all employers carry health insurance that includes birth control, abortificients and abortion coverage. The letter, entitled “Standing Together For Religious Freedom”, acknowledges the signators have a wide range of beliefs and that many of the signators do not have a moral problem with birth control and/or abortion, but are concerned with the threat to religious freedom that the HHS mandate represents.

Many of the signatories on this letter do not hold doctrinal objections to the use of contraception. Yet we stand united in protest to this mandate, recognizing the encroachment on the conscience of our fellow citizens. Whether or not we agree with the particular conscientious objection is beside the point. HHS continues to deny many Americans the freedom to manifest their beliefs through practice and observance in their daily lives.

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declarationThe Declaration of Independence contains the clearest, most concise, and most eloquent articulation of the American creed, says David Azerrad, a political definition of man in two axioms, and three corollary propositions on government.

In the course of making this argument and building their case, the founders also laid down the timeless and universal principles that were to define the new country. In that second paragraph, we find the clearest, most concise, and most eloquent articulation of the American creed. The truths proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence define us as a nation and bind us together as Americans. They unite the diverse pluribus into an American unum.

Natural human equality is the first axiom of the American creed. The founders, of course, recognized that human beings are different and unequal in more ways than anybody could count. But for political purposes, all men and women—regardless of race, religion, sex, or whatever the oppressed category du jour might be—are born equally free and independent and therefore may not be ruled without their consent. In America, we recognize neither natural slavery nor divine-right monarchy. The differences that separate us are never so great as to create a chasm between human beings. As Thomas Jefferson explained: “Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to othersin understanding he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.”

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On Friday, June 28, the Department of Health and Human Services offered up its final ruling on the mandate for all employers to offer insurance plans covering abortion services and abortificients. The ruling itself is over 100 pages, and will sebeliustake some time to dissect. However, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty made this statement:

‘Unfortunately the final rule announced today is the same old, same old. As we said when the proposed rule was issued, this doesn’t solve the religious conscience problem because it still makes our non-profit clients the gatekeepers to abortion and provides no protection to religious businesses’ says Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. ‘The easy way to resolve this would have been to exempt sincere religious employers completely, as the Constitution requires. Instead this issue will have to be decided in court.’ (more…)

There is little doubt that America is moving further away from the kind of broad and liberal religious freedom that was championed during the founding period. In terms of intellectual thought, that period was certainly the high water mark for religious liberty around the globe. As Americans celebrate their freedoms and Independence next week, I seek to answer the question in this week’s commentary about America’s ability to remain the land of religious liberty.

Sadly, the outlook is rather bleak, and America will need a fundamental shift in thinking to secure protection for the rights of conscience and houses of worship. It’s evident the significance of spiritual freedom is waning and can’t really be articulated by the wider culture. Spiritual freedom is essential to self-government and self-control. In fact, I make the point in my commentary that the most dangerous detriment to religious liberty is the popular notion that religion and faith constricts liberty. Obviously, just winning mere court cases is not enough. That ship has sailed.

I suspect today’s Supreme Court ruling regarding the Defense of Marriage Act will only complicate matters of religious conscience for churches and dissent from culture and society becomes more dangerous. Secularization of society and the rise of centralized federal power is creating a government that seeks to operate above fundamental truths and the rights of conscience. It seeks to crowd it out and diminish its influence and limiting power upon the state. During his closing address at Acton University, Samuel Gregg explained so well how moral relativism now operates in a dictatorial fashion.

Just before the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776, John Adams wrote a letter to his cousin Zabdiel that I think points to our inevitable path as a nation without a rejuvenated appreciation and understanding of religious liberty. Adams declared,

The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our people in a greater measure than they have it now, They may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty. They will only exchange tyrants and tyrannies.

 

HermanBavinckBigThe Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has some wise words for reform of cultural institutions, notably marriage and family, in his exploration of The Christian Family:

All good, enduring reformation begins with ourselves and takes its starting point in one’s own heart and life. If family life is indeed being threatened from all sides today, then there is nothing better for each person to be doing than immediately to begin reforming within one’s own circle and begin to rebuff with the facts themselves the sharp criticisms that are being registered nowadays against marriage and family. Such a reformation immediately has this in its favor, that it would lose no time and would not need to wait for anything. Anyone seeking deliverance from the state must travel the lengthy route of forming a political party, having meetings, referendums, parliamentary debates, and civil legislation, and it is still unknown whether with all that activity he will achieve any success. But reforming from within can be undertaken by each person at every moment, and be advanced without impediment.

We often take the liberty necessary for such reformation for granted. Will the world continue to be open for such reformation? Will there still be circles of Christian influence that will allow us to live out the realities of the gospel everyday?