In every age Christians must consider carefully how to live in their unique circumstances. In one way this task is very simple: keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and hold on to the gospel and the apostles’ teaching. Remaining faithful does not require understanding all the ways people can be unfaithful. Knowing truth does not require studying all forms of falsehood. While this is a very important insight we would do well to keep in mind, not every Christian possesses thorough knowledge of the scriptures or deep understanding of the faith. Not all have become stable in discipleship to Jesus. They are vulnerable to deception by half-truths and clever lies. Hence some within the Christian community need to devote themselves to understanding the cultural context within which God’s people live and sharing their findings with the church. I find myself compelled to engage in this work.
This summer I’ve felt an urgent need for additional insight into the principles that animate the drastically different moral/political/religious visions that do battle contemporary culture. Don’t mistake my concern for despair. I am confident that God’s deity and existence are not at stake, much less in jeopardy, in these controversies. Jesus Christ is and will be Lord no matter what the outcome of the cultural war is. My worry is that some Christians could be swept up in the emotions of the day, take their eyes off Jesus, lose faith in the providence of God, and abandon themselves to hatred, division, and fanaticism.
The Raging Battle
Sometimes I feel like a man standing on a hill gazing silently at a battle raging in the valley below. Who are the participants? What’s at stake in the battle? How did this war begin and when will it end? I understand that I am a part of this world and a participant in this culture. As long as I live I cannot escape the conflict completely. But do not believe I should rush into the battle before I do all I can to understand why the war is being fought and how it relates to the spiritual battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12).
Right and Left
The standard classification of right, left, and center seems inadequate to describe the present cultural landscape. Right, left, and center parties combine greatly disparate ideologies and interest groups to form their coalitions. At first inspection, the whole culture seems to be a chaotic, eclectic patchwork of temporary alliances of convenience.
The right and left are relative terms, and to convey any information they must relate to a fixed point. Historically, these terms derive from the era of the French Revolution (1789). The French National Assembly divided into supporters of the King who sat on the King’s right and supporters of the revolution who sat on the King’s left. Applied to the contemporary social order this mapping makes sense only in relation to an image of the traditional religious/moral/social order taken as a fixed point. The Right maintains a conservative stance toward this order and the Left calls for revolution.
I think the designations “Right” and “Left” are still useful in marking out two general attitudes toward tradition, but they do not help us understand the nuances of difference within each wing. Apart from understanding the Right’s reasons and principles justifying conservation of the past and the Left’s reasons and principles grounding its call for revolution, we can neither understand nor evaluate their programs.
I find it confusing that each party calls to its defense the same set of reasons and principles but apply them in different ways, with different levels of consistency, and in different combinations at different times. Even more confusing, the parties themselves do not seem to be aware, much less possess a theoretical grasp, of how they are using those reasons and principles. To understand the current situation we need greater clarity about the function of principles in the arguments of the parties.
The Rhetoric of Freedom
In the cultural struggle between “Left and Right,” all parties appeal to the same noble and commonly accepted principles. No one says, “I don’t care about other people. I want what I want no matter what others think.” No one lets it slip that they are power hungry or greedy or obsessed with perverted lusts. They talk about legal rights, constitutional rights, and human rights*. They complain of unfairness, injustice, discrimination, and inequality. Sometimes they invoke human dignity, the inherent right to happiness, or autonomy. Let’s explore the meaning of these principles and try to ascertain how they are used by Right and Left to support their positions.
*Note: A “right” is a broader concept than a “freedom” though it includes it. A negative right is identical to a freedom, but a positive right corresponds to what was traditionally known as a “privilege.”
The Many Faces of Freedom
In the history of philosophy and politics “freedom” has been used to designate three basic types of openness for human action. Two of the three have been adapted to develop theories of political freedom. In popular rhetoric, however, they are mixed together, and this conceptual confusion leads to misunderstandings. In view of this confusion let’s first get clear on the differences among the views of freedom being used in contemporary rhetoric.
1. Freedom to Act as One Pleases
According to John Locke, Jonathan Edwards, and John S. Mill, freedom is leeway to act as you please. Freedom understood in this way is openness to pursue your happiness in whatever way you find promising. You are free insofar as nothing outside of yourself obstructs your external action in pursuit of good things. Maximum liberty, then, is a circumstance wherein nothing external to you inhibits acting on your desires. But everyone knows that we will never enjoy maximum freedom in this world. The laws of nature, our finite powers, limited knowledge, and resistance from other people will not allow it. Pursuing maximum freedom despite its impossibility will work only destruction. Like it or not, we are forced to come to terms with our less than maximum freedom. But however realistic we may be about the limits the world places on our freedom, we may not be able to shake the feeling that we are being deprived of happiness. Different people cope with these limits differently. Some find contentment in resignation to their limits. Others nurse perpetual resentment and defiance. Still others are driven to think in alternative ways about freedom and happiness.
2. Freedom in Classic Liberal Politics
At its best, politics is deliberation about the optimum way to order life in society to facilitate the realization and preservation of the cherished values of the people. Adopting Locke’s, Edwards’s, and Mill’s understanding of freedom, classic liberal political theory holds individual liberty as its most cherished value. It aims to advance and protect each person’s freedom to pursue happiness in whatever way the individual finds promising insofar as such action can be harmonized with every other individual’s pursuit of their happiness. Liberty is so precious that it may be limited only by liberty itself.
A government administered as a classic liberal order refrains from telling individuals in what their happiness consists. In other words, it’s not a “nanny state” that assumes it knows better than you what is good for you. Nor does it take as its responsibility making sure everyone attains happiness; it’s not a “welfare state” whose task is to accompany you from cradle to grave to make sure you have everything you need every step of the way. It assumes that each individual knows best what makes them happy and that they possess the drive to pursue it. The art of politics in the classic liberal state is balancing the liberty of each with all and of all with each. The government assumes the role of a referee that makes sure the game is played according to the rules. There will always be disagreements, conflicting claims, and “bad calls.” The devil is in the details.
As we all know, however, a society ordered purely in accord with the classic liberal political theory has never existed. It’s probably impossible. Other such values as national security, religious and moral belief, human dignity, general welfare, aesthetic tastes, and prejudices often serve as the bases for laws that restrict freedom.
Next Time: Other views of freedom and political order.