Category: Individual Liberty

What do we mean when we talk about “liberty?”

roman-slaveWhile it may appear that we all use the word in the same way, closer examination reveals that Americans have a wide range of meanings for the term. For instance, when those of us at Acton refer to liberty we tend to have in mind the definition we use in our “core principles”: Liberty, in a positive sense, is achieved by fulfilling one’s nature as a person by freely choosing to do what one ought.

Other individuals and organizations often define the term in ways that differ, either subtly or radically, from the Acton Institute. Liberty, then, is less an easily definable term than a word used to refer to a range of loosely related concepts. Understanding how “liberty” has been used in the past can therefore help us understand how and why we have different views of it today.

A prime example is political historian Quentin Skinner’s explanation of “neo-Roman liberty.”
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During his address to German students yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry offered a defense of freedom of speech and religion by saying that in the United States “you have a right to be stupid if you want to be.”

john-kerry“As a country, as a society, we live and breathe the idea of religious freedom and religious tolerance, whatever the religion, and political freedom and political tolerance, whatever the point of view,” Kerry told the students in Berlin, the second stop on his inaugural trip as secretary of state.

“People have sometimes wondered about why our Supreme Court allows one group or another to march in a parade even though it’s the most provocative thing in the world and they carry signs that are an insult to one group or another,” he added.

“The reason is, that’s freedom, freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid – if you want to be,” he said, prompting laughter. “And you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be.

“And we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that. Now, I think that’s a virtue. I think that’s something worth fighting for,” he added. “The important thing is to have the tolerance to say, you know, you can have a different point of view.”

No one familiar with John Kerry’s career should be surprised that he is snootily dismissive of Americans who hold views different from his own. And perhaps we should be grateful that a man who could have been president of the United States believes in “tolerating” those of us who stupidly oppose infringements on our religious liberties.

Still, as Ken Blackwell says, instead of talking of “tolerance” and how we “tolerate” ideas we think are stupid, Kerry might have told the young Germans about George Washington’s eloquent Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport.

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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Adam-eve-priest-animals-riverIn today’s Acton Commentary, I explore the Christian conception of law as a necessary palliative to the anti-social effects of sin. “Since we do not always govern ourselves as we ought to, in accord with the moral order, there must be some external checks and limits on our behavior,” I write.

In a complementary post over at There is Power in the Blog (the blog of the journal Political Theology), I also explore the theme of “Proper Reverence for Political Authority.” There I draw explicitly on the example of Abraham Kuyper, who sees “the state” as a uniquely post-lapsarian institution, but who also sees social and even political life as a natural expression of human nature.

There’s a wonderful passage in Kuyper’s lecture on Calvinism and politics that gets at what political life might have looked like without sin and the resulting need for coercive restraint: “Had sin not intervened…as a disintegrating force, had not divided humanity into different sections, nothing would have marred or broken the organic unity of our race.” Only in such a case “would the organic unity of our race be realized politically,” in which “one State could embrace all the world.”

But, in fact, sin has intervened, and therefore, as I point out in today’s commentary, “law and legal constraint protect true liberty, and prevent our earthly existence from degenerating into a hellish existence, a libertinism in which our anti-social desires are given full rein.”

And for another worthwhile discussion on “what kind of corporeal or political life men would have professed in the state of innocence,” check out the latest scholia translation and introduction of a text by Francisco Suárez in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

The February issue of Sojourners magazine presents various perspectives on the surge in evangelicalism’s interest in exploring new national and international peace initiatives. For example, The World Evangelical Alliance’s Peacebuilding and Reconciliation Initiative acknowledges “that in our zeal for evangelism, we have often overlooked the biblical mandate to pursue peace. We commit ourselves anew to this mandate within our homes, churches, communities, and among the nations.” Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) promotes itself as an evangelical organization that “consistently campaigns at the grassroots and policy level for a world that is pro-life and pro-poor, pro-family and pro-racial justice, pro-sexual integrity and pro-creation care.” “We want Christians to look deeply, act justly, and love radically,” says ESA.

Justice and peace are, of course, themes we can all support. What Christians are there in the world who are pro-war and pro-injustice? Even with these themes, however, is it possible that those who are oppressed and suffering need more than a society that is merely peaceful and where people are acting justly? Because “peace” and “justice” are normally situated in light of negative realities, more often than not, the discourse tends to focus on what we should not do in society instead what allows people to be free to live out their vocation to be human. The solutions offered tend to narrowly focus on lofty hoped for visions that deny trade-offs necessary in a broken world.

Additionally, we find the surprising promotion of a ruling class of elites in government having concentrated decision-making power over those with less money and less political power, rather than considering ways to allow people to make decisions that empower them to seek their own solutions to meeting their needs. We need to do more than “end slavery” or “end poverty.” We need to think more deeply about what it means to be human and how we can put people in positions, in accordance with their design by their Creator, to live well. In other words, we need to focus our attention on human flourishing.

In a 2003 article on human flourishing,” Dr. Edward W. Younkins helps us get a sense of the advantages of focusing on human flourishing: (more…)

In a lengthy interview in the Daily Caller, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg picks up many of the themes in his terrific new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Here’s an excerpt:

Daily Caller: In what ways do you think the U.S. has become like Europe?

Samuel Gregg: If you think about the criteria I just identified, it’s obvious that parts of America — states like California, Illinois, and New York — have more-or-less become European. Likewise, the fact that most federal government expenditures are overwhelmingly on welfare programs replicates the situation prevailing throughout Western Europe. Then there is the unwillingness on the part of many Americans to accept that we cannot go on this way. It is one thing to have problems. But it’s quite another to refuse to acknowledge them.

Daily Caller: What’s so bad about becoming like Europe? It’s not that bad of a place. It’s not like becoming like North Korea, right?

Samuel Gregg: I lived and studied in Europe for several years. So I can report that there is much to like! But even leaving aside many European nations’ apparent willingness to settle for long-term economic stagnation, I would argue that it’s becoming harder and harder to be a free person in Europe. By that, I don’t mean a re-emergence of the type of socialist regimes that controlled half of Europe for 50 years. Rather I have in mind two things. (more…)

Tom Brady was drafted by the New England Patriots in the unimpressive 6th round of the 2000 NFL draft out of the University of Michigan. No one predicted that the slow-footed, lumbering QB in this footage from pre-draft workouts that year would become one of the greatest players in the sport’s history.

But he did. Boy, did he!

I’m no fan of the Patriots and care little for Tom Brady himself, but the guy is a winner and fierce competitor. His statistics speak for themselves. The teams he’s captained for more than a decade have amassed a staggering amount of wins. His three Super Bowl rings put him in rarefied air when the conversation about where he ranks among Hall of Famers starts up. He’s got multi-million-dollar endorsement deals and a super model wife. According to the largely superficial standards of our modern world – dude’s getting it done!

And so as Brady entered this off-season’s contract negotiations, conventional wisdom said that the 35 year-old QB would be in line for yet another big pay-day. After all, these 1%-er, out-of-touch athletes are all money-obsessed jerks, no? Given the “spread the wealth” mentality that increasingly typifies America in 2013, we’ll probably need to get some congressional oversight to limit the salaries of the wealthy jocks parading around the field playing a kid’s game, right? (more…)

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, writing on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), is reaching out to members of Congress regarding religious liberty and the HHS Mandate. In a sharply-worded letter, he reminds members of Congress that there is a clear history of protecting the rights of those with religious and/or moral objections to paying for services such as abortion. He then goes on to address the so-called “war on women”:

It can hardly be said that all these Presidents and Congresses, of both parties, had been waging a war on women. I have seen no evidence that such laws, showing respect for Americans’ conscientious beliefs, have done any harm to women or to their advancement in society. What seems to be at issue instead is a new, more grudging attitude in recent years toward citizens whose faith or moral principles are not in accord with the views of the current governing power. And while the mandate for coverage of abortion-causing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization is hailed by some as a victory for women’s freedom, it permits no free choice by a female employee to decline such coverage for herself or her minor children, even if it violates her moral and religious convictions.

Archbishop Lori concludes on this note: “I fear that the federal government’s respect for believers and people of conscience no longer measures up to the treatment Americans have a right to expect from their elected representatives.”

You can read Archbishop Lori’s entire letter here.

King Louis XIV censored Moliere’s 1664 play Tartuffe after determining audience members might too easily confuse the titular priest’s hypocritical nature with every priest in real life. According to the king, some priests’ “true devotion leads on the path to heaven,” while others’ “vain ostentation of some good works does not prevent from committing some bad ones.”

The king’s judgment in many ways also describes individuals who pursue their religious vocations while simultaneously championing secular causes such as proxy shareholder resolutions. This leads to more of the same kind of confusion that King Louie was worried about. Coming from the other direction, groups that recruit nuns, priests, and other religious and clergy to promote these resolutions under the pseudo-spiritual guise of “corporate social responsibility” and “social justice” aren’t being clear about intended objectives. The aim of all this is not salvation of the soul, but political organizing.

While Tartuffe deceived his hosts’ willfully, those proxy shareholders who belong to religious orders may or may not be unwittingly promoting such secular resolutions as, for example, bans on hydraulic fracturing that have nothing to do with their vows. As for the secular groups who join them, could it be possible they even more resemble Moliere’s priest by seeking grace on the cheap when they deploy religious, nuns and clergy to assist in the promotion of proxy resolutions?

And at what point do these faithful cease advocacy of spiritual matters and become mere secular activists?
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When we think of the concept “economic freedom” we often think about essential liberties and the factors that make them possible (e.g., free markets, the rule of law, and property rights). But for Christians economic freedom is not an end unto itself but the means for freeing our resources to use in ways that God intends. Being free of the bonds of economic statism is therefore useless if we use our liberty to enslave ourselves. As Kevin DeYoung asks,
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For George Washington’s birthday, Julia Shaw reminds us that the indispensable man of the American Founding was also an important champion of religious liberty:

All Presidents can learn from Washington’s leadership in foreign policy, in upholding the rule of law, and—especially now—in the importance of religion and religious liberty. While the Obama Administration claims to be “accommodating” Americans’ religious freedom concerns regarding the Health and Human Services (HHS) Obamacare mandate, it is actually trampling religious freedom. President Washington set a tremendous example for the way that Presidents should handle such conflicts.

Washington knew that religion and morality are essential to creating the conditions for decent politics. “Where,” Washington asked, “is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?”

Religion and morality are, Washington wrote, essential to the happiness of mankind: “A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.”

Read more . . .