In a 2014 article, Yuval Levin examines the notions of liberty and freedom, and the ideas that underpin our modern interpretations. His insightful piece demonstrates that both progressives and conservatives in America share a fundamental view of human flourishing. Unfortunately, this view is too low, too utilitarian, and too shallow to produce citizens capable of the grave responsibility of living in a free society.
Levin echoes a thought I have entertained for several years. As the church and state have separated, largely through the splintering of the church, the state has ceased to concern itself with the souls of its citizenry. Religious freedom, in many ways, means religious apathy.
The Reformation and the ensuing wars left us with governments content to not care about our souls because the price of caring for them became too great. Defending the realm from heresy was possible when it was an outside threat as in the Crusades, but once the enemy was within the gate in the form of Christian pluralism, the war was seemingly lost.
While it is right to be careful not to romanticize the life of a feudal serf, we also need to be mindful lest we despise it as well. We project our own ideas of liberal freedom upon people who had no such ideas. Peasant farmers had no ideas of liberty in the modern sense, but only a deep understanding of obligation—obligation to work in order to eat; obligation to provide for self and family; obligation to take care of neighbors; and obligation to the princes and kings who provided security.
We have largely replaced obligation with entitlement in our western world. It is hypocritical to sneer at the taxation of the farmer by the prince and yet champion our governmental institutions that subsist on the same taxation. We gladly villainize the king as a despot who stole from the poor for his own benefit, yet we seem comfortable with those who tax the working to subsidize those who don’t.
Perhaps in the Reformation we made the shift from preservation to progress as our great societal aim. Instead of conquest, competition became our noble drive. Once choice was introduced as an option, it soon sprang up as an ideal. It has been a seamless journey from “Protestant or Catholic” to “Iced, Half Caff, Ristretto, Venti, 4-Pump, Sugar Free, Cinnamon, or Dolce Soy Skinny Latte.”
When I took a marketing course a few years ago, we discussed the “Tyranny of Choice“. In a nutshell, it is the idea that we are being paralyzed by having so many choices in so many areas of life. On a governmental level, I think the tyranny may be even worse than psychological discomfort.
As choice reigns supreme, we have crossed a threshold from religious freedom to viewing religion as an enemy because most religions restrict choice. Put another way, religions teach that some actions are acceptable and others are not and this competes with our idolization of choice as the greatest good for humanity.
We find ourselves in a situation where “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been reduced to “pursuit of happiness.” That’s what liberty means to most modern westerners: the freedom to do whatever I want without anyone making me feel guilty about it. (Forget about life. That fell to “choice” over 40 years ago and is continuing to crumble as euthanasia and assisted suicide gain traction on the other end of life.)
We need a better definition of human flourishing, yet I am unconvinced that a pluralistic one will suffice. William Penn, whom we uphold as a pioneer of religious toleration, would be considered a bigot and religious zealot in our day. Consider the Frame of Government he authored for his colony of Pennsylvania in 1682, especially sections 34-36.
We will likely not see a return to religiously-allied government anytime soon in the west, but I am not convinced we could make that transition well at this point anyway. With our idolization of choice, we can expect tyranny to increase rather than lessen.