Monday, April 06, 2009


Religion and Liberty

When discussing "liberty" and "freedom," it seems some clarification of terms is in order. The founders' vision for America was not about unfettered freedom, but, rather, a particular type of ordered liberty. "Freedom" without a strong moral basis is an empty promise. The founders - admittedly an ambiguous term, but for the purpose of this post can be described as the founding generation of the United States, steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition (if they weren't themselves orthodox, ie: trinitarian, Christians) and natural law - understood the problem of liberty quite clearly. The problem, stated simply, was how to keep liberty from degenerating into mere license. The solution, as many of the founders saw it, was to encourage the practice of religion among the American people under the assumption that the Christian religion helped make citizens fit for republican government. Meaningful freedom required the exercise of virtue on behalf of citizens and the connection between the Christian religion and virtue was obvious.

The problem inherent in a free society is that immoral actors take advantage of moral ones. If everyone quite rationally suspects everyone else of immoral behavior, then in order to protect themselves in any given transaction the value of exchange is necessarily undercut by the cost of self-protection. As actors become more immoral in their transactions, it becomes necessary to ease the expense of self-protection by enlisting the aid of government in the form of regulation, thereby undermining the entire libertarian idea. The key to breaking the cycle of immoral action and regulation is to change the nature of the actors. This not a new concept, as would-be social engineers and progressives of every stripe have been attempting this with various degrees of failure to show for their efforts for more than a hundred years. The more virtuous actors in an exchange are, the less opportunistic their behavior, then the more trust all actors can have at the outset of exchange. With trust, the costs of transaction rapidly decline and the need for government regulation and enforcement eases also. Absent trust or government intervention, exchanges are only regulated by the relative strength of the actors, a situation that can be readily observed in criminal activity.

"Because the founders had the wisdom and imaginative power to predict what evil a man might conjure up with unrestrained liberty, they grounded liberty in the context of order. Prudence is generally scorned today, but in the days of the Constitutional Convention it was a highly regarded way of life. Mores and honorable social tradition constituted what it meant to be a liberated man. They held as self evident that when confronted with liberty ungrounded in order, men create a world of chaos with respect to themselves and a world of tyranny with respect to others. In contrast, some think today that unrestrained liberty constitutes what it means to be a liberated man. A deep reverence for the Founders' ideal of a liberated man, exercised through right reason, defines the proper relationship between order and liberty and altogether defines what it means to be a conservative." - Christa J. Byker

Religious social conservatives press for public policies that tend to increase social capital by improving citizens. The difference between what social conservatives and humanistic socialists are after in the transformation of the individual into a good citizen lies in the nature of their different approaches. The Christian sees the development of virtuous behavior as a "bottom up" enterprise, meaning that society is perfected as its individual members are, whereas humanists tend to work from the top down, defining the ideal and coercing the individual to its vision. True liberty lies in the freedom to do as one ought, that "ought" as realized by a properly formed actor.


For more on natural law -

On Virtue -

On ordered liberty -

See also: Samuel Gregg's excellent book "On Ordered Liberty: A Treatise on the Free Society (Religion, Politics, and Society in the New Millennium)"

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